Why Do Cats Meow?

By Amanda Jondle, DVM April 26, 2019

Have you ever been startled awake in the wee hours of the morning to a loud yowling sound and realized it was coming from your cat? Or maybe you’ve been trained to fill your cat’s food bowl every time she meows at you while you’re sitting and watching television on the couch. Cats make over one hundred different sounds with various meanings. You might wonder if your cat is trying to communicate with you, another cat, or the gods above. Let’s see what your cat is trying to tell you!

Why Do Cat’s Meow?

In general, cats meow for attention. They want to let you know they’re hungry, thirsty, bored, lonely, sick, ready to play, or looking for cuddles. Cats don’t naturally meow at each other. Through domestication, they discovered that they can manipulate their owners into giving them what they want by meowing.

Why Do Cats Meow As Kittens?

Kittens are born with their eyes and ears closed. They can’t see or hear anything, but they can make noise. Kittens often mew quietly when they’re together with their littermates or nursing from their mother. These are usually gentle quiet sounds of contentment. When kittens mew loudly, they might be separated from the litter and trying to find their way back to their mother. Sometimes, they use these loud mews to indicate they are cold, hungry, or scared. The mother uses her kitten’s mews to locate them and to determine if any are separated or in trouble.

Do Adult Cats Use Meows To Communicate With Other Cats?

Adult cats haven’t been known to meow at other cats. Certainly, cats use other sounds and signals to communicate with each other. Intact female cats will often yowl when they are in heat to attract a mate. During mating, there is often some shrieking or yowling involved. When cats fight, you can usually hear growing, hissing, yowling, and screaming. When cats are together and grooming, cuddling, or sleeping you can often hear them purring. Other common ways cats communicate with each other is through scents, pheromones, body language, facial expressions, or touch.

Why Do Adult Cats Meow At Humans?

While cats don’t meow at each other, they will meow at their humans. This is usually a learned attention seeking behavior. Cats have discovered that they can get our attention by meowing, so they use it to their advantage. Here are some common reasons cats meow:

  • Attention seeking

Your kitty wants your attention and she wants it right meow! Maybe its pets on the head, a belly rub, or a chin scratch, but your kitty is trying to get you to pay attention and give some love. Perhaps they just want you to play or even talk back to them!

  • Wants in or out

Many cats hate having a closed door. Whether they actually care about being in your presence, or they just want the option to go in and out of the room or house, they insist on free access. Some cats will sit outside the closed door and meow until it is opened, getting their way. Others might let you know by pawing at the door or sticking their paw underneath, but either way, your kitty doesn’t want to be shut out.

  • They are hungry

Cats will meow at their humans when they are hungry; this is a well-known fact. Whether they want their dinner at that exact moment or they insist on having their bowl filled so they can eat it later, cats are pros at training their humans to give them food. A lot of the time, they just don’t like seeing the bottom of the bowl! Some cats will meow at their humans even if they only want a little midday treat.

  • Greeting

If you have a particularly social kitty, you might find that they will come and greet you at the door when you come home, meowing and rubbing up on your legs. They are saying “hi, welcome home!”

  • Loneliness

Some cats will meow or even yowl if they are lonely or separated from you. This leads back to attention seeking or at least wanting the option to be social.

  • Stressed or annoyed

Have you ever noticed that when there are changes, big or small, to your household that your cat starts to vocalize more? Some cats communicate their stress or annoyance through meows. They’re trying to tell you that they’re not exactly happy with this new situation.

  • Health

There likely will be times in your cat’s life where they are sick or injured, and most cats will let you know something is wrong. Some illnesses, such as hyperthyroidism or kidney disease, will actually cause a cat to vocalize more, louder, or at night. If your cat is hurt, they might meow to let you know they are injured or in pain.

  • Aging

As cats age, they can be affected by disorientation, cognitive dysfunction, and Alzheimer’s-like symptoms, just like people. Your kitty may not exactly be sick, but they’re experiencing aging changes that you should pay attention to.

Different Types Of Cat Sounds And Their Meaning

  • Yowling

This may mean that your intact female cat is in heat. It could also indicate loneliness or illness.

  • Hissing

If your cat hisses at you or another cat, they are telling you that they are upset about something. Cats will also hiss when they are scared.

  • Growling

This indicates that your cat is scared, threatened, or trying to threaten someone. If you hear your cat growling, be careful, but investigate to see if anything is wrong.

If you hear your cat making short chattering noises, you’ll likely find them looking out of a window at small prey-like animals such as birds, chipmunks, or squirrels.

Cats most often purr when they are content and happy. Some cats might purr if they are nervous or scared.

  • Short, quick meow

This is often a greeting.

  • Multiple meows

When your kitty meows multiple times in a row, they are usually excited to see you or want your attention or food.

  • Mid-pitch meow

This could be a plea for attention or your cat saying they want food.

  • Long drawn-out meow

This might mean your cat wants out or is demanding something.

  • Low-pitched meow

This could indicate your cat is unhappy about something and trying to complain to you.

  • High-pitched meow

A high-pitched meow could indicate that something is wrong, that your kitty is in pain, or that they are angry about something.

It is important to note that if you think your cat is meowing because they are in pain, injured, or sick, you should take them to see your veterinarian right away. This is also true if your cat starts vocalizing significantly more or less than normal. Otherwise, they are seeking attention from the most important person in their life – you!

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Here is a video of a cat meowing for attention.