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.