If you’ve ever had the privilege of sharing a home with a cat, chances are you have some questions for your mysterious housemate: Why do you hate the toilet paper roll so much? Why is that water bowl suddenly unacceptable? Why are you meowing? No, really, what’s with all the meowing?
The last question in particular can be a pressing one, especially at 5 a.m. So, why do cats meow? On the surface, this seemingly simple question has a simple answer: because meowing gets your attention, so much so that you’re reading about it like a well-trained human.
Understanding Why Cats Meow
Among themselves, adult cats tend to use other forms of communication such as body language, scent marking, eye movements, licking and nudging. But when it comes to people, cats know what works.
“They seem to have learned humans are a chatty species and that they get the best results by using vocal communication,” says Pam Johnson-Bennett, a certified cat behavior consultant and author. “We typically respond to the meow, even if it’s to tell kitty to be quiet. Cats learn the meow is the key that unlocks the door of our attention.”
Although it is refined for your ears, your cat learned Meowing 101 as a kitten, when the unique, high-pitched vocalization came in handy for getting precious, much-needed attention.
“When they are older, they communicate to each other through chortles, hisses and yowls, but vulnerable kittens have to rely on mom for food, warmth and comfort,” explains Marilyn Krieger, a certified cat behavior consultant and author. “Kittens meow when they are hungry, cold and scared and when calling for their moms.”
Interpreting Your Cat’s Meows
So now that he has your attention, what does your cat actually want? That’s the trickier part.
“The most common reason is, ‘Hey, I’m hungry—can you feed me?’” says Darlene Arden, a certified animal behavior consultant and author. “There’s also, ‘Why are you in that room with the door closed?’ It could be any number of reasons, but really, if you’re tuned in enough to your cat, you should know why he’s meowing.”
If you are tuned in, you may have noticed that your cat uses certain pitches to communicate different wants and needs.
“It’s almost as if cats and their cat parents develop their own language,” says Johnson-Bennett. “As cat parents, most of us have become quite good at interpreting what each variation on the meow means with our own cats. Cat parents can usually differentiate between the ‘feed me’ meow and the ‘play with me’ meow, for example.”
As for the meow that sounds more like a yowl, that one’s simple: a cat yowls because he or she wants to breed. Either way, a visit to your veterinarian for a spay or neuter procedure will put an end to the yowling.
When Meowing Becomes an Issue
If you have an especially vocal cat, there may be no need for concern. Like humans, some cats simply talk more than others. Some breeds, like the Siamese and the related Oriental, are notorious chatterboxes. But excessive meowing—or any changes to your cat’s meowing sounds or patterns—could mean that there’s a problem.
“Excessive meowing can be a sign of pain, sensory decline, loneliness or disorientation,” says Johnson-Bennett. “Some older cats can develop cognitive issues and may vocalize on an ongoing basis. Cats who develop hearing loss or a decline in vision may vocalize often. It’s important to have a veterinary examination to rule out any underlying medical cause for the constant vocalization.”
Although it’s not necessarily a medical issue, loneliness should be taken very seriously as a cause of excessive meowing. While cats may have a reputation for being independent and aloof, this simply isn’t the case.
Like a dog, your cat requires human companionship, plenty of engaging toys and interactive playtime to be happy and healthy. Arden recommends clicker-training your cat to keep him engaged—believe it or not, it’s possible—and having a pet-sitter or neighbor stop by if you plan to be out most of the day.
“If you leave them alone for lengthy periods of time, they can become very anxious and meow excessively. It’s like separation anxiety in dogs—there’s no reason to believe that this exact same thing is not happening in cats,” she says.
If your cat’s excessive meowing is not caused by loneliness or a medical condition, it may be possible to reduce his vocalizations by changing some of your own habits.
“If you want your cat to meow less, then respond to him and reward him when he’s quiet and not when meowing,” suggests Johnson-Bennett. “Even if that is just a few mere moments of silence. If you always respond to the meow, then the cat understands that to be the successful method.”
Why do cats meow? Consider this particular mystery solved. Now, as for the toilet paper roll, we suspect that’s a lost cause.
Monica Weymouth is a writer, editor and certified Weird Animal Lady. She lives in Philadelphia with her two rescued Shih Tzus.