Study Asks: What Are Cats Even Meowing About?

Research investigates what your cat’s mew, rawr — even that open-mouthed, barely audible cat-whisper thing — means.

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"So then I said, 'Karen, you really need to take more naps.'" fantom_rd/iStock/Thinkstock

If you’ve wanted to know your cat’s motivations for some behavior — say, running out of the room at top speed for no apparent reason — meows might hold clues to what’s inside those mysterious minds.

Scholar Susanne Schötz has begun a five-year study called “Meowsic” to find how cats communicate with people via meows, the Washington Post reports. In addition, she thinks the results could help people use similar intonations to speak to cats.

Susanne Schötz is on a five-year mission to see what cats are trying to tell us. Via Meowsic Project

Susanne Schötz is on a five-year mission to see what cats are trying to tell us. Via Meowsic Project

Schötz, an associate professor of phonetics at Lund University in Sweden, has turned acoustic analysis tools typically used for people onto cats. She wants to create a sort of lexicon for cat meows or, “prosodic typology of cat vocalizations,” according to the Meowsic project website.

In particular, she’d like to know how cats use rising and falling intonation to get their points across. She’s working from a list that breaks down meows into categories: closed mouth, open mouth and open tense mouth. The last category features all those super uptight sounds your cat makes when he or she is clearly upset. Each category has sub-types and Schötz has listed what each vocalization could mean.

Schötz records cats to analyze their sounds. Via Meowsic Project

Schötz records cats to analyze their sounds. Via Meowsic Project

Research on cat meows began in earnest in 1944, when Mildred Moelk came up with the original canon of cat sounds: 16 distinct patterns in three categories. Beyond simply meows, she detailed mouth-open, heavy breathing sounds, like hissing and shrieking, the aggressive vocalizations. Others include closed-mouth sounds like purrs and trills, which seem to mean contentedness.

Schötz research takes the next step in analyzing these meows, and we are looking forward to seeing what she finds out so we can figure out what our cats keep trying to tell us.

Cat experts translate meowsEver wonder what your cat is trying to tell you? We asked experts to translate.

Posted by Washington Post on Thursday, February 25, 2016

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  • My cat seems to be begging for something and I have no idea what it is- there is plenty of fresh food in her dish, the water has been changed twice since noon today,— am at my wits end. She just sits and mumbles for awhile, staring at me all the time, then goes to the kitchen and screams–AND I MEAN SCREAMS!! I am going to make an appointment to take her to the vet- maybe on Thursday.

    Misty Brown March 1, 2016 1:07 pm Reply
  • I talk to them, they talk back

    Polly March 1, 2016 5:01 pm Reply
  • My cat literally only meows at night, never during the day. He wakes me, wakes me up, I check his food and water, make sure his toys are available, give him a pet and a cuddle. But he still has walks about the house meowing non stop. Then as soon as its light outside, he stops?

    Michelle March 1, 2016 11:00 pm Reply
    • Try leaving a night light on. Even though cats can see in the dark they can get depressed from it, they have the moon for light outside in the wild so they don’t like the pitch black of the inside home.

      Chris March 31, 2016 1:12 pm Reply
    • Maybe he is scared or lonely, or needs a cat friend. Have you heard of Jackson Galaxy? He can help you about this problem. He live in California. He has his own TV show and you can look him up on the web too

      Andrea April 1, 2016 12:40 pm Reply
  • My baby Vincent mainly meows when I am laying in bed. And he has this high pitched meow. My boyfriend swears that Vincent is gay

    Robin March 2, 2016 3:40 pm Reply
  • IMHO, outside of pet me, feed me , take me outside for a walk, my cats just talk to me and I respond and when I talk to them they sometimes reply. Some of my cats are more intuitive than others and they all have difference personalities. I have a deaf cat and he never stops meowing unless he is asleep. He does have variations in loudness when he determines it is appropriate. If he sees me asleep, he meows close to my face and softly while he walks on me. Once, one of my cats had a bladder stone blockage and he actually howled at me while making eye contact and I just knew it was an emergency ! Sometimes, I think we are actually communicating via ESP and tones of voice.

    Koko Loewen April 1, 2016 8:14 am Reply
  • I have a 2 yr old cat a girl lil one and max he’s 7.. Lil one fetches, we talk lol! Their both great cats but I have a question about one behavior I can’t figure out when max comes in from the garage lil one stays behind sometimes I call her and she talks really fast ( a meow of sorts), her lips are moving really fast and a funny sounds coming out and she just stares at me lol! Does anyone have a cat that does this? It’s really very cute, but confusing,,

    Kristina Cunha April 2, 2016 12:29 am Reply

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