For the most part, cats meow only to communicate with humans, not with other animals, according to anthrozoologist John Bradshaw in his book, Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet (2013). Part of his evidence is that feral cats do not meow nearly as much as domesticated housecats.
Additionally, scientists believe that the meow is a manipulative behavior cats adopt to get what they want. Nicholas Dodman of Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine argues that cats can learn which noises are most effective at getting their owners to do what they want them to do (Robins 2014).
But how well do humans understand what cats are saying?
Back in 1895, when cats were just beginning to become common household pets, a man named Professor Alphonse Leon Grimaldi wrote an essay explaining what cats were saying to humans. Before 1895, cats were mostly outdoor animals. They were used to catch rodents but were not brought inside frequently or loved as companions. In his essay, "The Cat," Grimaldi translated some of the most common cat words into human words. For example, he believed that "Aelio" meant "food."
Over a hundred years later, some cat experts still believe that certain cat noises can be understood by humans. Jean Craighead George, an author and naturalist, categorizes cat vocalizations in a way that seems very simliar to human communication. For example, she says that "Mee-o-ow" (with falling cadence) is a protest or a whine (Robins 2014).
But not all scientists believe that cat sounds can be interpreted so easily. A 2003 study by Nicholas Nicastro and Michael Owren called "Classification of domestic cat (Felis catus) vocalizations by naive and experienced human listeners" found that cats do not use vocalizations to attract attention from humans, but the ability to interpret those noises depends a lot on the human. Owners are much better at interpreting the meaning of their own cats (Nicastro and Owren 2003).
One common misunderstanding among cat owners is that cats only purr when they are happy. Sandy Robins explains that while most cats do purr when they are happy, they also purr when they are anxious or in pain (Robins 2014). Read the Everyday Mystery, "Why and how do cats purr?" to learn more about purring.
One of the other main ways that cats communicate both with humans and other cats is with their tail. A cat walking with an upright tail is relaxed and friendly. A tail swishing back and forth quickly can mean a cat is angry or curious. If a cat's tail is fluffy and the hair standing on end, that means the cat is threatened and is trying to make it look bigger to scare away a threat (Newman, Alexander, and Weiztman 2015).
Another common behavior is when cats head-butt humans and rub against them. Scientists believe this is either a way to greet humans and say they are happy to see them – or as a way of spreading their scent and marking their territory. Cats have scent glands on their cheeks, jaw, and near their tail. When they rub those parts of their body on an object or another animal, they transfer a scent that only other cats can smell (Robins 2014).
Here are some tips for improving your communication with your feline friend, found in The Original Catfancy Cat Bible:
Cat kisses. The way to "smile" at your cat is to look your cat in the eye and slowly blink. They take this as a loving gesture, and will often do it back to you. (Robins, p. 470)
Talk back to them. Many cat owners have found that their cats are more talkative when they respond to their meows! (Robins, p. 466)
Speak to your cat in a soft and calm voice. Cats are sensitive to tone, and tend to not be very forgiving. (Robins, p. 469)
Avoid saying negative things along with their name. For example, if you say "No, Fluffy! Stop! Fluffy, get off the counter!" This will confuse them! It is best for your cat to associate their name with happy and calm words. (Robins, p. 469)
Know how to approach. The best way to approach a cat is to get on their level and extend your hand with a closed fist and one finger slightly extended. (Robins, p. 469)
Pay attention. The more you watch and listen to your cat, the easier it will be to understand what they are communicating. Notice patterns in their behavior – do they make one type of meow when they are hungry and another when they first see you? (Robins, p. 466)
- Do you understand what your cat is saying? - This brief article from Phys.org discusses an academic study researching communication between cats and humans. Video included.
- Feline communication - The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) offers this webinar focused on understanding cats and communicating with them too.
- Feline scent-marking: cat communication - TexVetPets.org provides guidance on this specific cat communication behavior, also known as "bunting." Identifies and defines key terms.
- Bradshaw, John. Cat sense: how the new feline science can make you a better friend to your pet. New York, Basic Books, 2013.
- Bradshaw, John, Rachel A. Casey, and Sarah L. Brown. The behaviour of the domestic cat. 2nd ed. Wallingford, Oxfordshire, Boston, CABI, 2012.
- Newman, Aline Alexander, and Gary Weiztman. How to speak cat: a guide to decoding cat language. Washington, National Geographic Society, 2015.
- Nicastro, Nicholas, and Michael J. Owren. Classification of domestic cat (Felis catus) vocalizations by naive and experienced human listeners. Journal of comparative psychology, v. 117, no. 1, 2003: 44.
- Robins, Sandy, Arnold Plotnick, Lorraine M. Shelton, and Sarah Hartwell. The original catfancy cat bible. Irvine, I-5 Publishing, LLC, 2014.
- Turner, Dennis C., and Patrick Bateson. The domestic cat: the biology of its behavior. 3rd ed. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2014.
more print resources...
Search on "Cats," "Cats--Behavior," "Cats--Behavior--Juvenile literature," "Cats--Psychology," "Cats--Social aspects," "Human--Animal communication," or "Human--Animal relationships"
in the Library of Congress Online
An image from Marvin Clark's Pussy and Her Language (1895) via the Biodiversity Heritage Library. It shows word for word translations between cat language and English.
Contented cats at Yoder's Amish Home, an authentic Amish farm that began accepting visitors in 1983 near Walnut Creek in central Ohio, along the "Amish Country Byway."
Image from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
This advertisement from page 194 of Marvin Clark's
Pussy and Her Language (1895) incorporates a cat speaking to its owner, saying he uses a type of soap called Pyle's Pur-Pur-Pearline.
Image from the Biodiversity Heritage Library.
Tiggy. Courtesy of Madison Arnold- Scerbo.