Why Do Cats Meow?

Children are taught from a young age that dogs bark, cows moo and cats meow. The exact reasons behind the latter, however, are still debated among cat behaviorists to this day.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, there are 58 million cats living across nearly 32 million U.S. households. So, if you're a proud cat owner and wondering the reason behind your loyal feline friend's meow, Newsweek spoke to several experts to help understand why.

Why Do Cats Meow?

Communicating With Owners

The most common theory as to why cats meow stems from the fact that they learned and adapted to do so some time after becoming domesticated. According to Zazie Todd, animal psychologist and author of the upcoming book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy, it's likely that cats have learned to meow in order to better express their feelings to their human companions.

The most concrete evidence to this is the fact that cats rarely meow at each other outside of domestic households. In their very nature, cats are solitary animals and hunters, according to Teresa Keiger, editor of Cat Talk magazine. "Cats primarily communicate with each other with scent and with body language," she said. "[They] have little to verbally communicate with each other."

An increased feeling of safety may be a contributing factor to cats becoming more vocal after starting to cohabitate with humans. "Adult cats living on the streets or in the wild are prey to larger animals, so they tend not to be very noisy except in special circumstances," explained cat behaviorist Celia Haddon. "Keeping quiet is safer."

Man holding a cat
An image showing a man holding a cat. According to cat behaviourists and animal psychologists, cats "meow" in order to better express their feelings to their human companions. Getty Images/ insonnia

Interestingly, as much as owners have learned to connect with their cats, humans are not well-equipped to understand cats other than their own. Research has shown that owners can distinguish their own cat's meows from that of a stranger, Haddon told Newsweek.

But according to a study conducted by the University of Milan, cat owners still have a limited understanding in distinguishing emotions of other cats based on their experience with their own pets. Haddon explained: "Meows are private communications between each cat and its human rather than a general language between all cats and all humans."

In a way, humans' own preference for vocal communication could have also contributed to cats learning to use their voice to indicate hunger as well as meanings such as greetings, a request for attention or an invitation to play.

"Context will usually tell us what a cat wants," shared Haddon. "If the meow occurs in the kitchen when we're opening a bag, [the cat] probably means 'Feed me.'

"Cats make many vocal sounds such as purrs, meows, chirps, trills and so on," Pam Johnson-Bennett, a certified cat behavior consultant and author of Think Like a Cat, told Newsweek. Humans are more likely to respond to meowing, which lets cats know this particular form of communication worked, resulting in repeated behavior, she explained.

"Older cats tend to be more vocal than younger ones because they have learned that humans respond to their meows," agreed Haddon.

Comforting Their Kittens

Before learning to vocally communicate with humans, meowing has been known to be a way for cat mothers to comfort their kittens. Though, Johnson-Bennett highlighted that the need for vocalization among cats disappears as kittens mature and once scent and body language begin to take over as the primary modes of communication.

Interestingly, Keiger shared that the sounds mothers make to attract her kittens from wherever they've run off to can sound similar to the vocalization cats make to call their humans.

Mother cat with kitten
An image showing a grown-up cat with a kitten. According to cat experts, cats are known to "meow" in order to comfort their kittens. Getty Images/Prostock-Studio

In a similar vein, there's a widespread belief that cats' meows have evolved to sound similar to a baby's cry in order to elicit a larger response from humans. While there's not much evidence to support this theory, some research into the acoustic properties of meows has shown that a particular type of meow may sound similar to a baby's cry.

Johnson-Bennett explained: "A study at the University of Sussex in the U.K. identified that cats seem to have developed a specialized purr referred to as a 'solicitation purr,' which includes cries at similar frequencies to a human baby."

Finding a Mate

As is the case with many animals, "intact" cats can grow increasingly more vocal during mating season. However, this cannot be described as meowing as much as "a distinct, guttural vocalization," says Keiger. "It's a way to attract a mate who may not be in the immediate area," she told Newsweek.

You're more likely to hear cats "advertising their availability" through long and loud repetitive calls in warmer times of the year, says Haddon. This is mostly down to the fact that felines are seasonal breeders and therefore typically look to have kittens in spring, summer or warm fall.

Two cats cuddling up
An image showing two cats cuddling up. Research proves that ‘intact’ cats can grow increasingly more vocal during mating season. Getty Images/maximkabb

According to the animal welfare charity Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), a cat's reproductive cycle generally begins in April once daylight starts to lengthen and stops sometime in September. In order to prevent unwanted litters and protect their companion's health, the RSPCA recommends that responsible owners spay or neuter their cats once their pet reaches four months of age.

Do All Cat Breeds Meow?

While all cats have been shown to vocally communicate with humans, some breeds like Siamese are widely considered to be more vocal and "talkative" than others, according to Haddon.

Popular breeds such as the British Shorthair and Persian tend to be more quiet, though this can vary depending on each individual cat.

There's a possibility that cats have adapted to not only imitate human sounds. Newsweek previously wrote about how cats have been known to mimic bird sounds by chirping. According to some theories, this can sometimes occur as a result of either excitement, frustration, or a predatory instinct and desire to pounce on a smaller prey.

British Shorthair cat looks up.
British Shorthair cat looks up at the camera. Experts say that British Shorthair and Persian breeds tend to be more quiet compared to other breeds. Getty Images/chendongshan