Do Cats Understand Human Meows?

Do Cats Understand Human Meows?

Let’s be honest here: when you’re alone at home, you meow at your cat, right? It’s time to get real – we all do this, and we all feel a bit silly about it! If you’re guilty of trying to communicate with your kitty in her own language, then you’ve probably wondered what she thinks. After all, they’re not always the most responsive pets! So why do cats meow at us, and what does your cat make of your attempts at feline communication?

Do Cats Understand Human Meows? Cats won’t differentiate your meowing from speaking, but they will appreciate the simple fact that you are addressing them and acknowledging them. In fact, meowing is something that cats only do to get attention from humans. When they’re with other cats, they will not meow to each other, but instead use a myriad of different noises, movements and silent body language to get their message across.

Cats reserve meows for humans only, and use them when they want something from you, whether that’s food, water, reassurance from danger, affection, their litter being changed, or nothing more than attention. Cats, living in a domestic environment, are totally dependent on humans for everything. As this relationship only goes one way, even a perfect imitation of a meow will not result in a cat responding, because they have not evolved to reply to these sounds!

  • So should you give up on meowing to your cat, if she’s never going to understand what you’re trying to say?
  • Why have cats developed this inter-species communication method?

It’s time to unlock some of the deeper mysteries of the feline-human bond…

The Purpose of Meowing

Cats and humans have been living together for over 9,000 years. It’s fair to say that, although your feline friend might not be as obviously affectionate as a dog, she does care for you in her own way. Just like in relationships between humans, communication plays a big part. But whether you meow at your cat, baby-talk to her, or just chat with her as you would to any other flatmate, she isn’t going to get a lot of meaning from you. She’ll appreciate the fact that you are communicating with her, and of course, it’s possible – although it can be very time-consuming – to train cats to recognise their own names and even, in some cases, simple commands.

However, meowing has a particular purpose in the human-cat relationship, and it’s your cat’s way of relaying a message to you. Whether your cat is an extremely vocal meower or more on the quiet side, those plaintive cries are aimed at humans. So if you meow back to her, she’s not necessarily going to see it as you trying to speak her own language, because strangely enough, cats just aren’t conditioned to respond to meows! Of course, there are plenty of cat-lovers who will swear blind that their kitty has a particular bond and loves indulging in back-and-forth meowing sessions with them. Sadly, while it might seem that way to you, thousands of years of evolution, and the studies of animal behaviour scientists aren’t exactly on your side.

Your cat meowing back at you doesn’t mean that she’s acknowledging your communication and continuing the conversation – it means that she wants something! Having said that, meowing at a cat certainly won’t cause any harm. In fact, your cat will be pleased that you’re communicating with her, even if she doesn’t understand the message. As always with animals, you might want to focus a bit more on your tone, rather than your words. Speaking softly and tenderly to a cat, no matter what you’re saying, will usually leave your pet in a good mood.

The Fascinating History Of Meowing

How did the meow evolve? This is a remarkable story. No other domestic animal has evolved a way of communicating purely for human interactions! If you have more than one cat, you may well have already noticed that they don’t meow to each other, only to you. What’s more, if you’re a cat lover – and even if you’re not – you might find plaintive, urgent meows very hard to ignore. It can be easy to switch off when you hear a dog barking outside your window, but a cat’s meow is harder to block out. Don’t worry if you find it almost impossible to ignore those desperate-sounding cries – that’s actually a key point in the evolution of the meow, and the reason cats use it to speak to us!

Scientists believe that the meow evolved as a unique way to grab human attention. In fact, meows have been proven to share a similar frequency with babies crying – a sound that inevitably triggers a deep, instinctive human response, and that is all but impossible to ignore. That’s why, when you hear a cat meowing, your automatic instinct is to find the little animal and see what’s wrong with her. You can try to shut it out, but you might well find that your brain physically doesn’t want to let you. Manipulative? Maybe, but it certainly seems to work!

Understanding Meows

So what does a meow mean? Of course, as any cat lover will tell you, every cat is unique – so it’s hard to give you a straightforward cat-human dictionary. There are pets who meow noisily, and others who rarely open their mouths. Some use an array of different sounds, including clicking noises and little chirps (Siamese cats are particularly prone to chirping at people). Some cats are even mute, although they may still open and close their mouth at you in an attempted meow. The more time you spend getting to know your kitty, the better you’ll understand her unique arsenal of different meows.

Having said that, there are some sounds that tend to be quite standard. If you’re a new cat owner, and you’re still trying to work out the kinks of your relationship with your four-legged friend, then it’s handy to realise that there are some meows that are more or less common across the entire cat world. You might find this little guide a helpful way to interpret some of what your cat is trying to tell you:

  • A short meow: this is a standard hello-style greeting. Good news – your cat is happy to see you!
  • Several short meows: your cat is really excited to see you. Have you been away for a while? She’s delighted that you’ve come home!
  • Longer meow with a mid-level pitch: your cat wants something. Food is often the answer – but if she’s not hungry, check her water, see if she wants to be let out, or make sure that her litter tray is clean enough to use comfortably.
  • Long, low-pitched meow: whoops! Your cat isn’t happy. This is a cat’s way of complaining. Just like an unhappy customer in a hotel, cats aren’t shy about speaking up when things don’t meet their standards!
  • Very high-pitched meow: this is immediate, urgent unhappiness. Is your cat’s tail trapped in the door? Better see what the problem is, fast!

Speaking cat language

So meowing doesn’t work. But is there any way of communicating with your cat on her own terms? Well, yes – but unfortunately, most parts of cat language that we can easily master are a bit on the negative side! Sadly, positive cat sounds like purring is pretty much impossible for humans to replicate. You might not want to try these on your own darling pet, as she could take them the wrong way.

Want a cat to back off? To get a feline to stay away from you, try hissing at them – a message they’re sure to understand. Of course, most stray cats will run away from you anyway, but this could be useful if a cat is trying to steal your dinner before you’ve had a chance to clear the plate!

If you want to start a fight with a cat, then you can do that, too. Using short puffs, blow air towards them. This mimics the sound a cat makes before initiating a fight. Take care with this action, though. Try it on your beloved domestic friend, who you already have a great relationship with, and she might playfully swat at you or even try to wrestle good-naturedly. But a more skittish cat can run away in fear, and feral cats may take it as a signal to start a proper attack. If you blow air at a kitty and her fur stands up on end, then they’re not in a playful mood, and it’s best to retreat unless you want to get seriously scratched!

Barbara Read

Barbara Read - Cat owner, researcher and behavioural expert. Cats are not only fantastic pets but also wonderful and complex animals with great personalities. It takes time and effort to learn their behaviour but its completely worth it.

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