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The Meaning of Meow

By Brad Kollus

The Meaning of Meow

"Meow!" As cat owners, we hear it every day -- usually many times a day. But what does it mean? According to Dr. Nicholas Nicastro, you probably understand its meaning more clearly than you might think. Dr. Nicastro wrote his PhD thesis in psychology at Cornell University on humans' ability to understand the meows of cats.

Nicastro recorded hundreds of meows made in real-life situations between cats and their owners. He then had unfamiliar listeners -- some who had cats and others who didn't -- listen to the recordings. "In one experiment," says Dr. Nicastro," "I asked them to classify the context to when the meow was produced. For instance, is this a food call or is this a 'get away from me' call? In the second experiment I asked them more general questions. Does this call sound pleasant? Does this call sound urgent or demanding?"

Cat Lovers Often Get It
It turns out that cat owners were pretty good at understanding what the cats were trying to communicate with their meows. "People who had no experience with cats did poorly. People who had some experience with cats, owned cats or had lived with them did significantly better," says Dr. Nicastro. The cat owners were able to correctly interpret 40 percent of the meows, twice as many as those who did not have cats. Humans' ability, however, to interpret communication from another human speaking the same language is between 95 percent and 98 percent, so we have a long way to go before people are fluent in cat-speak.

What Do the Sounds Say?
Dr. Nicastro found there are different types of meows people can identify, and they have different general meanings. "What I found was there are certain acoustical qualities that correlate with something sounding pleasant or sounding urgent, and I speculate that the cats can use these acoustical changes to manage our impressions of how their meows sound to get what they want out of their human caretakers," says Dr. Nicastro.

Urgent calls sound unpleasant, demanding attention. Calls that sound pleasant don't seem as urgent. "Angry or antagonistic meows tend to be longer in duration and friendly calls tend to be a little shorter, and that correlates with the idea of pleasantness," says Dr. Nicastro. In addition, angry or defensive calls have a lower pitch, while friendly calls have a higher pitch. The theory is that lower pitch calls make cats sound bigger and more threatening, while higher pitch calls make them sound small and helpless, which is attractive to humans.

Listen and Learn
Meowing is an attempt by our cats to communicate with us, and only us. They don't meow to other cats. It seems that we have the ability to understand what they want ... if we're listening.


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Posted on June 19, 2009

Tonya says: Well she got out and she is a female and she was gone for ten day's and now that she has returned she canot meow. She trie's but nothing comes out. Could you tell me why this may happen.

Posted on June 4, 2008

Justis Pyle says: everytime i wake up and get home from work i come in the house and she just meows until heart is content or until i play with her. is that why she meows alot? or does she miss me when i'm working?

Posted on June 30, 2008

Lori says: I know EXACTLY what the meowing in the middle of the night means..."pay attention to me"!!!! However, this is a new thing but the cat is 7. Why has she suddenly decided to deprive me of good sleep? I have not reinforced this behavior even once. Sometimes I get up and put her in another room alone, but it still continues! HELP!

Posted on May 21, 2009

Joyce Ardelia says: my cat cannot meow all of a sudden any idea's why??????

Posted on January 3, 2008

karen says: my cat, 10mos. old, is doing the same thing. She sticks her butt in the air, her meows have changed, and she doesn't play like she used to. What's wrong with her?

Posted on January 14, 2008

Lea says: My 5 year old male cat often cries and meows at night. He keeps waking my husband up and my husband has almost resorted to the fact my cat needs to go. I am heartbroken and need a solution fast. We have tried locking him out of our room and letting him in. No matter what, he starts to cry at some point throughout the night. How can I stop him from crying/meowing so much?

Posted on June 4, 2009

brenda says: my cat has had a snotty nose since i got her one year ago from a shelter. my vet has put her on antibiotics over and over and it does not help i think it is allergies what can i give her to help her? my vet bills are getting too high and cleaning her snot off the walls and floor are getting gross. there most be somethng to give her that will help. this is the third place we have lived in and it is the same in each home. please help thank you

Posted on January 22, 2008

Paul says: My male cat -age 3 - has taken up meowing between 2 AM and 7 AM. It has increased a little lately. What can I do? I am sleep deprived.

Posted on February 16, 2008

Dawn Piehler says: My male cat who is 9 months old is constantly meowing.He is keeping the whole house up at nite. It s a very high pitched meow. When he does this I check on him,but he is always just siting there just fine. Why is he doing this?

Posted on April 12, 2008

Barbara Hughes says: Cats put their butts in the air and head down because they want pets or are just stretching.Chirping is interest in prey ie: bugs, birds. Maybe someone can help me, my 4 yr. old Siamese male doesn't like me to take a nap and wakes me up after 5 hours sleep, every day. Can't seem to break him of it. If I lock him out he scratches the carpet then I get angry.

Posted on November 28, 2007

terry l. beavers says: my cat c.t.is 7mos. old.a female.she is meowing in a churping type meow.she eats and drinks well but is rambunkious not to interested in her favorite toys.sticks her butt in the air and puts her head downon the floor.is she in heat or is something wrong?

Posted on January 11, 2011

SPARTICUS says: HE' HI MALAYAN, HUGE, AND VERY VOCAL. HE'S JUST OUR BABY. HE CRIES WHEN EVER THE MOOD HITS HIM!

Posted on January 12, 2011

Kelly says: i beg to differ about cats not meowing to each other. maybe not in nature, but as i've lived with cats for years, i hear them meow at each other often. not as often as they meow at me, but they will be in another room and i hear them, so i call to them thinking they want me, but i get no response. instead, they keep meowing. and they are adult cats - one is 6 and the other is 4. i think it's the influence that they are in a household where they are talked to a lot, and they go against their species and replicate those conversations with each other. one of them will be in another room and start crying out, and the other goes running in there before me, and i find that that was what the original cry was for, to get the other cat's attention, not mine. so i think they can learn to communicate with each other verbally by being in a home where they are talked to.

Posted on January 17, 2011

Jean says: My cat walks outside with me and feral cats jump up at her at the window. Now she stands at the door and "howls at the moon" like a "horney cat". She seems to be calling the wild cats! She does this morning and night and I'm at my whits end to stop her . She is spayed but I think she needs Cat- saltpeter. Do you know of anything homeopathic I can give her to stop her "pain"???

Posted on March 16, 2011

Jessica says: For this statement to come from a doctor, "They don't meow to other cats," I have to wonder if he has ever owned more than one cat at a time. I have two cats that are brothers (twins actually - born in same sac) and they meow to each other all the time. They will meow while playing or meow to call to each other from other rooms or while looking for each other. So I find that statement very incorrect.

Posted on April 13, 2011

James says: Cats certainly meow at each other. I have witnessed this behavior many times, usually when a male cat is moving quickly through an area that is not their own 'home' territory. The tone is not deep, so I suspect that it may be some sort of 'passing through/non-threat' signal. The cat in possession of the territory seems to have a choice of responses, from ignoring it to open agression. I have also listened to a neighborhood cat (male) that seemed to have some sort of understanding with our cat meow on entry to the yard, and then continue to meow while it apparently searched around for their 'friend.' The cat would flee if people approached, so the sound was clearly not intended for humans. I suspect there's rather a lot 'experts' still don't understand or even recognize about cats.

Posted on September 10, 2011

Mary Ann says: Cat's don't meow to other cats? On what planet? This is a "doctor" who has studied cats? Then he failed his finals ;-) As for the rest of the article,  mostly accurate. But that one faux pas made the whole article seem suspect! :-D

Posted on October 7, 2011

diane says: my littlt kitty has very sharp nails have bought scrathing thing but des not seem to know how to use it do not want declare

Posted on October 9, 2011

Norman says: My cat Whisper does mews to call Maestro (her offspring) to come and play.

Posted on November 11, 2011

Stephanie says: Tonay, take her to the vet.

Posted on November 11, 2011

Stephanie says: for those of you with cats that are meowing in the middle of the night. Are you playing with your cats? They may be craving attention OR there may be another cat or animal outside they want to investigate, OR in my case, they lose their favorite toy behind the fridge. If you have a designated play time with each of your cats, and stick to a routine, they won't pick up odd habits. If the meowing does not get better, there may be something else environmentally that is making them agitated.

Posted on December 23, 2011

Judith says: For years, any kind of cat crying drove me crazy trying to figure out what was wrong, what does the cat want, etc. Then about a year ago, I meowed back at a cat who'd moved in, and she walked away satisfied. As far as I can tell, she's just saying hello and looking for a hello back. 

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