The Method Behind Meowing

Cats meow to communicate with us, not to talk to other cats.

Meow is a special language cats invented purely to communicate with humans. It’s true. Feral cats in the wild don’t meow the same way that housecats do. Adult feral cats might yowl, howl and growl, but they only meow amongst themselves quietly and infrequently, preferring to communicate cat-to-cat in other fashions – through scent, marking and physical contact. Kittens, domesticated or feral, will mew for their mothers but eventually outgrow this phase. If the kitten grows up among other wild cats, the need for vocalizing declines. But if the kitten grows up in a household, she quickly finds that the adult cat version of the mew – the meow – does a pretty good job of getting her whatever she wants from the resident human.

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No one has done a study on this (yet), but it’s hypothesized that cats speak to humans because they see humans speaking amongst themselves. They imitate our communication by meowing at us – and they keep doing it because it works. They meow at us and we talk back, we give them food, we engage with them. We humans seem to understand the language of meow, at least well enough to give our cats what they want most of the time.

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If you live in a multicat household like I do, you might notice that your cats meow at you way more than they meow to the other cats in the family. That’s how it works here. Our No. 1 talker, Binga, is always telling us we don’t give her enough treats, complaining that dinner is late, and discussing other important subjects. When I tell her to stop bothering Sparkle while she is eating, Binga talks back to me. She only talks to Sparkle and Boodie as a warning that she is about to whap them for some imagined infraction. Other than that, she’s pretty quiet around the other two cats. Communication is more likely to be done by ear twitching, looks, headbutts and, when the occasion calls for it, smacks.

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Interestingly, the frequency of meows coming from my three matches their human-friendliness. Binga, the talker, has never met a stranger. She loves people and will greet everyone who walks through the door with a purr and a headbutt. Sparkle, with her sweet little meows, keeps her distance from strangers, although she will check them out from a distance. Unless she’s very hungry, she does not talk to anyone but me, but she uses her sweet little voice very effectively. Boodie, our shy cat, doesn’t really know how to meow at all. She speaks in chirps and trills and sounds more like a space alien than a cat. As the non-dominant cat, she is also the one least likely to look you in the eye when she meows (or her version of meowing). She will sometimes use the same quirky vocalizations with the other two cats, unless Binga is playing too rough with her – then she squeals.

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Boodie, however, has one secret weapon the other two don’t – the Silent Meow, where she opens her mouth and no sound comes out. The Silent Meow makes humans putty in a cat’s paws. If you have ever had a cat that meowed like this, you know. Which is funny when you think about it – for all their meows, the most effective form of feline-to-human communication is the quietest.

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