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Why do cats meow when they are adults?

Why do cats meow when they are adults?


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Meowing for kittens is similar to a baby crying. As human adults grow, they stop crying, but as kittens grow up they continue to cry. Why is this?


I could not find a peer-reviewed paper, but there is a widespread popular belief that adult cats only meows to communicate with humans but never with other cats. Meowing allows a cat to obtain the attention of its human owner and eventually get what it wanted.

See this webpage from the american society for prevention of cruelty to animals for example or this quora post.


The Cat’s Meow: Do You Know Why Cats Meow?

The other day I was cooking dinner and it seemed to make my cat jealous. First he just roamed around the kitchen a little bit, letting out a plaintive “meow!” every few minutes. But the more time I spent paying attention to my pasta sauce rather than him, the more demanding he became.

Soon, he was meowing at me every 30 seconds, rubbing against my leg, and meowing really loudly the second I looked down. It was like he was in a competition with my sauce pan.

Has your cat ever meowed non-stop to get your attention? Did you ever wonder where they learned to do that?

Well, it turns out that adult cats don’t actually meow to each other at all. Sure, they vocalize to one another in other ways. But adult cats typically only meow at people, not other cats.

Don’t you feel special now?


Cat Talk: 10 Reasons Cats Meow

So why do cats meow? Check out ten possible translations for cat talk:

10) I’m hurt – If your cat suddenly begins to meow excessively, take him to be evaluated by a veterinarian immediately. Your cat’s meows may indicate that there is something medically wrong, especially if the behavior isn’t typical. “Numerous diseases can cause a cat to feel hunger, thirst, or pain, all of which can lead to excessive meowing,” advises Web MD.

9) I’m just saying hi – Often a cat meows to his human when you come home, says the ASPCA website, or even to greet you when you see each other in the house.

8) I want food – The “I’m hungry” meow is likely one all cat parents know well. “Lots of cats know just how to tell their families that it’s time for dinner,” says pet blogger, Jane Harrell. “My cat Mojo would run around after me, meowing the whole time if she thought dinner was going to be late.”

7) Pay attention to me – Sometimes cats talk simply because they want your attention – and they learn that meowing gets them just that. “Cats often meow to initiate play, petting or to get you to talk to them,” explains Web MD.

6) Let me in – “If a door is closed, cats might meow to get you to open it for them,” says Harrell. “I have a foster cat who meows every time I close the bedroom door. She doesn’t want to come in – she just doesn’t like having it closed.”

5) I’m in heat
– A female cat in heat might yowl incessantly, says Moore. “Another good reason for spaying!” she adds.

4) I’m stressed – According to WebMD, cats who are stressed may become more vocal than normal. You may have experienced this first hand with a cat meowing loudly in the car on the way to the vet, for example.

3) I’m ticked off – “Angry, agitated cats will often erupt into a screaming match if they feel threatened enough to attack,” says Moore. She describes this mad meow sound as more of a yowl.

2) I don’t want to be alone
– According to The Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine’s Indoor Pet Initiative, when some cats are left alone for lengthy periods of time, they may become anxious and, among other things, meow excessively.

1) I’m getting older
– “Increased vocalization is fairly common in senior cats,” says Dr. Arnold Plotnick of Manhattan Cats and veterinary expert to catchannel.com. As cats age, Dr. Plotnick explains, they may display a decrease in cognitive function, demonstrated in a variety of ways, including loud meowing.

Of course, as any cat parent knows, sometimes cats meow for some unknown reason. Perhaps because the sky is blue or he wants you to change the channel on the television. Since cats can make a variety of vocalizations, your cat will likely use distinctive sounds in different occasions with different meanings. Paying attention to the circumstances in which your cat meows or vocalizes, and the sounds he makes can be fun and help you understand your resident feline a little better.


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Cat experts reveal the meaning behind different meows

My cat is something of a legend among people who have met him. He’s a handsome fellow in a fur tuxedo, but that’s not what makes an impression. It’s his meow — a raspy, baritone, reproachful mrow that you can experience for yourself, if your eardrums dare, in the video above (he’s cat No. 1).

He wields it around the clock, loudly. Visitors take video of the spectacle. Why, they ask, does Enzo meow like that?

It’s a good question. Unlike dogs, which range in size from teacup Chihuahuas to ursine Newfoundlands and usually have barks to match, domestic cats’ body types don’t vary that much (with some exceptions — ahem, Ulric). But some have meek mews and others fervent yowls, as seen in the video.

Although there isn’t a lot of research on cat voices, meow experts — and there are a few — say the explanation probably lies in the same complicated mixture that leads to different human voices: Anatomy, such as body size or length of vocal cords gender the amount of effort the cat puts into talking and no small dash of personality. Breed, such as it exists in the average mutt cat, likely also plays a role.

More clear is that although Enzo sounds like a professional scold, it seems he might actually be happy. But we’ll come back to that.

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First, some basics on cat conversation — or vocalizations, as researchers refer to the sounds they make. In 1944, researcher Mildred Moelk outlined what remains the definitive — though still debated – cat lexicon. She identified 16 sound patterns in three categories, and they include much more than meows. There are the mouth-open, heavy breathing sounds, such as hissing and shrieking, which cats use when they’re feeling aggressive. There are sounds cats make with their mouths closed, such as purrs and trills those seem to indicate contentedness.

Cats make more typical meow sounds by opening and closing their mouths, and those sounds can be friendly or — shocker — demanding. But adult cats meow only to humans, not to each other, probably because their mothers stopped responding once they were weaned.

“Cats vocalize so well to us because they’ve learned that we humans are really not all that on the ball in figuring out what the tail swish means, what the ear twitch means,” said Gary Weitzman, president and CEO of the San Diego Humane Society and author of “How to Speak Cat.”

But people do respond to cat calls — with their own voices or their can openers — in part because they are charmed by a sound that almost resembles a language, said Nicholas Nicastro, who published two widely-cited studies on meows more than a decade ago. But it’s not one, he said.

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“It’s clearly not a situation where they’re saying specific things. I have to emphasize that for some people, this is a radical idea. I get people telling me all the time, ‘I can understand my cat,’ ” said Nicastro, who studied whether people could listen to cat sounds and identify the circumstances in which they were made. They could — but only slightly better than half the time.

Cats are “trying to get what they want. But it’s only language in a very loose emotional sense,” he said.

Researchers have reached only a couple of conclusions about cats’ voices, but they’re interesting ones. One study of South Korean cats found that domestic felines make shorter and higher-pitched meows than feral cats, suggesting that socialization matters. African wild cats also make lower meows that human subjects surveyed by Nicastro found to be “much less pleasant to listen to” than those of their domesticated descendants, he said. Nicastro — who is now a novelist but says his meow research was his most attention-getting work — theorized that sweet meows evolved over millenniums as people selected house cats who made nicer noises.

So, back to my cat. Maybe Enzo’s strange meow is due to his semi-feral bloodline? His parents were street cats in Pakistan, after all. Or maybe he has an accent, which has been detected in some other animals? Nicastro said no, it’s probably just an individual thing. Weitzman surmised that Enzo might be part Siamese, a breed known for being chatty.

The latest researcher to tackle cat-speak is Susanne Schötz, an associate professor of phonetics at Lund University in Sweden, who uses the acoustic analysis tools she usually uses on people to study meows. She recently embarked on a five-year study — titled “Meowsic” — of how cats use melody and voice to communicate with humans and how people use the same things to speak to cats. One thing she’s interested in, for example, is how cats use rising and falling intonation to get their points across. The goal: A “prosodic typology of cat vocalizations.”

To help Schötz’s research (and ours), we sent audio of Enzo and three other Washington Post journalists’ cats — Sharkey, Roger and Randy — off to Scandinavia for her expert interpretation.

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For starters, she said, the cats didn’t just meow. They made what Schötz calls “complex utterances.” And it is probably no surprise that Schötz heard all four cats ask for something at one point or another.

Sharkey, she said, may have held onto his kitten-like mew to get attention or food. Roger has the most typical meow, a rising and falling sound that indicates he might want food, or company, or, she said, “to be let out in the garden.” (Unfortunately for him, he is an indoor cat.) Schötz said Randy, another talkative feline, brandished a rising, “question-like meow: ‘Could you please give me some food?’ ”

Evidently Randy has very good manners.

Enzo, I can attest, does not. But it turns out he’s not obnoxious at all to a cat meow researcher. His meow, Schötz said, “is quite unusual,” making him a very interesting subject.

“Enzo has a very beautiful low-pitched voice,” she said, though she could not explain just why. But to my surprise, she said he also employed a “complex vocalization beginning in a chirr and ending in a meow. And these are usually happy sounds.”

© Washington Post


Why Do Cats Only Meow at Humans?

Miriam's energy thrives around animals. She enjoys reading and writing about animals. There is no easy way of winning her heart than showing her an animal first because she has more animal friends than human friends. Read more

Contents

Did you know that cats only meow at humans? I know…this is one of those unexpected facts. It’s easy to assume that all cats meow and that they will meow at anyone and anything, but studies have shown otherwise. The big question is, why do cats only meow at humans?

This might shock you, as it did me, but studies have shown that all feral cats living away from us humans don’t meow. Further, research shows that only the African wildcat, European wildcat, South American margay and caracal make that sound.

As such, the meow only exists among domestic/socialized cats and this is to help them communicate with humans. It’s more of an adaptive mechanism because how would we live under one roof peacefully if only one party communicated?

It is also good to note that adult cats never meow at each other, but you will often hear a kitten meowing to its mother. Well, this is just because they need their attention and it goes away once they grow up.

Interestingly still, cats have different types of meowsto communicate differently or for different requests. If you’re keen enough, you will notice the difference over time. They will use a different sound when they want food, another one when they want you to open the door for them, etc.

And, you might also notice that some cats use body language for certain requests, such as when they want to play or to be held.

Let’s look at the different things that your cat might be trying to communicate to you via a meow:

Hey, let’s play meow

Sometimes your cat will meow just to get your attention. This will be probably when they are bored, or they want to play with you. This meow can be accompanied by body language such as the cat putting their tail up, ears and whiskers forward or their pupils will be slightly dilated.

This can really look so cute and tempting, but the best response is to ignore them. You wouldn’t want your cat meowing excessively just because they know you will come. So, the next time your cat behaves like this, do them a favor and walk away. Or better still, get them a second cat or a toy so they are not lonely when you are not available.

I am not feeling well meow

Cats will often hide their pain but eventually communicate when the pain worsens. This meow will be excessive and unusual. Some cat diseases make them feel hungry, thirsty or so much pain. When you notice this, take them to a veterinarian.

Anger

Unlike the “I am not feeling well meow”, sometimes a cat will have a sudden high-pitched meow. This is meant to bring something to your attention quickly. The meow will mostly happen when you step on their tail. This is not the kind of meow you would ignore as it automatically gets your attention and fast! They are just trying to tell you to watch out and they could get mad if you do not respond.

Delighted

Do new things get you overly excited? Well, they do to me. When something gets us, we get excited and want to talk about it. When something triggers your cat’s animal instincts, they will give a chatterbox meow. This is just because they have spotted something, maybe a squirrel or a bird from the window and are thrilled.

.

Hey, I am hungry

A hungry cat will not let you rest. They know it is your responsibility to keep them comfortable, so they will come to you. If you own a cat you know this meow all too well. The loudmouth meow does not stop until they get what they want. When you hear this meow, be sure to fill their bowl.

How are you doing?

Some meows are meant to say hello. This is often a short meow. It is cute and they mostly will do it when they see you at the door. When they walk into your room, they also use this as a way of announcing that they are around. So, the next time you hear this, just know your cat is either welcoming you or just telling you they are in the room.

When this meow is repetitive, it is a way of communicating how excited they are to see you.

Stress

Stress could be caused by abrupt changes around your cat. You might notice the meow every time you get a new pet, change your home or have someone new to them visit you. This meow is just a way of the cat telling you they don’t like it. It would be good to help them get through this by spending time with them or by hanging out with them together with the new pet until they get used to the change.

Midnight meow

Cats can become most active at night. They will not let you sleep, as to them it’s time to play. We love our sleep, and this could annoy both you and your family. To help reduce this, have an interactive play session with your cat before you go to bed, followed by a food reward. Then put off the lights to communicate to them it’s time to rest.

You can also get them toys to keep them busy when you are sleeping. The last thing you should do is waking up to check on them, unless the meow is different and calls for your attention.

Can I go out?

Cats are curious creatures and they love exploring. A drawn-out meow may simply mean they want to go out and explore. They are asking that you open the door or window and let them out.

Let me in, please

When a cat meows outside your door, all they want is for you not to leave them out. This could be your main door or your bedroom door. Sometimes, they don’t want to come in, but they just don’t want you to close the door.

I am in heat

When your female cat is in heat, they will yowl persistently. This is a way to get the attention of a male cat. The male will also be noisy when they notice a cat in heat nearby.

Depending on your choice, you can have your cat spayed, or get ready to welcome kittens to your home.

I am getting old

Lastly, increased meowing is common in older cats. Just like us, as they get older, they become more confused. An old cat will have impaired vision and hearing. If they start bumping into things at night, maybe leave the lights on as you go to sleep for them to see clearer.

You might also want to visit a vet or an animal behaviorist so they can advise you on how to handle them.

By now I believe we have answered the question why do cats only meow at humans? It’s an interesting discovery for most cat lovers because it makes us pay even more attention. However, sometimes you won’t understand why your cat is meowing and that’s okay. It gets better with time.


Cat's Meow

Photo Credit: Rudi Riet

A listener asks about the meaning of meows.

Transcript

The story behind the cat's meow. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Today's question comes from cat aficionado Jodi Carston of Anchorage, Alaska.

Caller:
"Why do cats meow and purr?"

We asked Katharine Houpt, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cornell University. She says that cats have many meows, and many reasons for meowing them.

Houpt:
"The one we're most familiar with is the demand meow, which means "I want to be fed" or "I want to go out" or "Pay attention." There are also meows that are pleading, which can often start with a soft purr, a purr-meow. And then there's caterwauling which is usually an aggressive call between two male cats."

She says there's also a hunting meow and a kind of trilling meow mother cats use with their kittens. So meows are a versatile form of communication. Purring, on the other hand, is simply a sign of comfort. Dr. Houpt says that unlike meowing or human speech, purring isn't the result of air passing over the vocal cords. It's a vibration of the larynx that resonates down to the windpipe and into the diaphragm. Kittens use it to communicate quietly with their mothers while they're nursing.

Houpt:
"And that's probably why it continues to be a behavior that they show when they are comfortable."

If you've got a science question, call us at 1-800-WHY-ISIT. If we use it on the show you'll get a purr-fect Science Update mug. For the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I'm Bob Hirshon.

Making Sense of the Research

Cats have led a paradoxical existence, from being treated like gods to being associated with witchcraft. Much of this ambivalence toward cats is probably because they remain enigmas. Although cats are often friendly and warm to people, they still behave as though their independence were total. They are mysteries to us and one of the qualities that adds to their mystique is the meow. Scientists have long speculated on the meanings of both the cats' meows and purrs. Meows are rarely heard during cat-cat interactions and it is believed to be a learned response, based on its effectiveness in getting human attention. The purr, on the other hand, is something cats are able to do from birth when they purr primarily while suckling. Purring is used in a wide variety of circumstances, not just when a cat is happy. For instance, veterinarians have noticed that some cats purr continuously when they are chronically ill or appear to be in severe pain. It is thought that they do so as a way to solicit care from humans.

This Science Update focuses on the cat's meow and how it is used to communicate its needs and wants. As such, it provides a good basis for beginning a discussion about not only verbal communication, but the other ways in which living things communicate&mdashsuch as through smell, sight, and touch. Cats could once again be good examples of these other methods, but it would probably be interesting to look at how other animals communicate with one another as well.

Now try to answer the following questions:

  1. What's the difference between purring and meowing?
  2. What different messages do cats communicate through meowing?
  3. Can you think of other things cats might try to communicate through meowing?
  4. What message does a cat's purr send?
  5. How does a cat produce the purring sound?
  6. Can you think of other ways in which a cat communicates with people or other cats? For instance, do cats use body language to communicate information? How?
  7. A cat's meow is used to communicate needs and wants to humans. Do you think cats use these same sounds to communicate with one another? Do you think alley cats, who have little or no interaction with humans, communicate in the same way as house cats?
  8. How about dogs? What sounds or motions do dogs make? Why?

Visit the Guide to Your Cat , from the Discovery site, for everything you've ever wanted to know about cats.

For more information on animal communication, visit the Animal Information Database from Sea World/Busch Gardens. Each animal resource page includes a section on communication. The database also includes an Animal Sounds Library.

Another good source of information about animal communication is the Neuroscience for Kids' page called The Brain and Language.


What We Understand about Cats and What They Understand about Us

In my last post I introduced the topic of cat cognition and what we broadly know about how these animals think. In this post I'm going to talk more specifically about what we understand about cats' interactions with the animal they spend most time with: us.

Sensitivity to human cues

Since cats have both been bred to be domestic and spend a lot of time with humans, we would expect them to pick up on human cues to some extent. However, anyone who has owned a cat knows that they are not always as responsive as you might want them to be.

One way in which we frequently attempt to interact with the animals that live with us is by pointing at things. It is possible that this shows our limitations rather than our animal friends since this is a particularly human means of communication. However, in 2005 a study by Miklósi et al. demonstrated that cats could indeed follow human gestures to find food. The researchers also investigated whether, when unable to solve a task, whether the cats turned to the humans for help at all. They did not.

Another study looked to see whether cats turn to humans when unsure about a certain situation. This &lsquosocial referencing&rsquo is something that we do both as children and as adults, for example a clown might initially seem terrifying but if everyone else is having a good time we may quickly learn that this isn&rsquot a situation to be feared (there are always exceptions to this of course). To see whether cats do this too, the researchers exposed cats to a potentially scary fan with streamers. The cat was brought into a room with their owner and the fan was put on. The owner was then told to act either neutral, scared of the fan, or happy and relaxed around the fan. The researchers found that most cats (79%) looked between the fan and their human owner, seeming to gage their response. The cats also responded to the emotional response of their owner, being more likely to move away from the fan when their owner was looking scared, as well as being more likely to interact with their owner. It&rsquos difficult to know how to interpret this, but the authors suggest that the cats may have been seeking security from their owner.

Other research has also shown that cats are sensitive to human moods, being less likely to approach people who were feeling sad and more likely to approach people who described themselves as feeling extroverted or agitated. However, why this should be isn&rsquot clear.

Human voice recognition

Two researchers, Saito and Shinozuka in 2013 demonstrated that cats can recognise their owner&rsquos voice. To test this, the researchers played cats recordings of either their owner calling them or other people calling their name. The cats were the most responsive to their owner calling. This response was mostly seen in terms of the cat moving its ears or head, rather than walking towards the voice as a dog might.

Vocal communication

Kittens have around 9 different types of vocalisation, while adults have around 16 different types. Interestingly, domestic and feral cats also differ from each other in their vocalisations, implying that their relationships with humans influences how cats &lsquotalk&rsquo. Perhaps one of the most renowned vocalisations of cats is their purr. Cats don&rsquot just purr when being stroked by humans, they also use it in interactions with each other and with their kittens. What&rsquos more, cats alter their purr to change the meaning of the vocalization. For example, when asking for food from owners, cats&rsquo purrs change, becoming more &lsquourgent&rsquo and &lsquoless pleasant&rsquo (McComb et al. 2009). When asking for food, a high-frequency miaow is usually also embedded within the lower-pitch purr. However, whether this food solicitation call is specific to cats&rsquo relationship to humans or whether they use it in other contexts, is currently unknown.

Attachment to owner

In 2007, Edwards et al. carried out the unusually-named &lsquoAinsworth Strange Situation Test&rsquo in order to test whether cats were more attached to their owners than to a random human. In this test, the cat was essentially placed in a room and experienced being alone, being with their human owner and being with an unknown human. The researchers found that cats spent more time allogrooming (head-butting) their owners than the stranger. They also only ever followed and played with their owner and never with the stranger. The cats were generally more exploratory and moved around more when their owner was in the room compared to the stranger. Both when alone and with the stranger, the cat generally spent more time being alert and sitting by the door. They vocalised the most when alone (compared to when with either human). Thus it seems that cats do have attachment to their owners that is stronger than with a random human, which is perhaps somewhat comforting to know.

Cats also seem to experience separation anxiety, which also indicates that they feel attachment to their owners. When separated from their human owners, cats are more likely to display stress behaviours such as urinating and defecating in inappropriate locations, excessive vocalisation, destructiveness and excessive grooming.

While the studies that exist on cat cognition have helped illuminate some of the abilities of our elusive housemates, there are still large parts of cat behaviour that remain understudied and mean we still don&rsquot understand many aspects of cat behaviour. A greater understanding of cats&rsquo behaviour and our influence on it will lead to better human-cat interactions, cat welfare and therefore the number of cats that are given to shelters and euthanized.

Main reference

Shreve, K. R. V., & Udell, M. A. (2015). What&rsquos inside your cat&rsquos head? A review of cat (Felis silvestris catus) cognition research past, present and future. Animal cognition, 18, 1195-1206.

Other references

Edwards, C., Heiblum, M., Tejeda, A., & Galindo, F. (2007). Experimental evaluation of attachment behaviors in owned cats. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 2, 119-125.

McComb K, Taylor AM, Wilson C, Charlton BD (2009) The cry embedded within the purr. Current Biology 19, R507&ndashR508.

Miklósi, Á., Pongrácz, P., Lakatos, G., Topál, J., & Csányi, V. (2005). A comparative study of the use of visual communicative signals in interactions between dogs (Canis familiaris) and humans and cats (Felis catus) and humans. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 119, 179.

Saito, A., & Shinozuka, K. (2013). Vocal recognition of owners by domestic cats (Felis catus). Animal cognition, 16, 685-690.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


How Do Cats Meow?

Like all animals, cats create sounds when air from their lungs vibrates the vocal cords in their larynx, also known as a voice box. While all mammals have the anatomical parts to produce a form of speech, a recent study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience reveals that larger brain size and highly developed neural pathways give humans their unique capacity for sophisticated language. Cats, like most other creatures, just don't have the brain power to work it all out.

Cats have made up for this neural deficit by altering the way that they meow. This allows them to communicate their needs to their humans.

Dr. Susanne Schötz, a phonetics professor at Lund University in Sweden, is working on an ongoing study called Meowsic that explores cat vocalization and communication with humans. She explains that a cat's meow is an "opening-closing" mouth mechanism that creates a "combination of vowels resulting in the characteristic [iau] sequence."


Hearing Help

Avoid letting your cat go outdoors if she has any hearing difficulty—cars are simply too much of a hazard. If you want to avoid shocking your cat every time you pass by, lightly touch her back as a simple and friendly "alert." With some minor tweaking and a lot of TLC, your cat—and you—can continue living the good life!

Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.