Why Does She Keep Meowing at Me? The Anatomy of a Meow

Patty Khuly, DVM
Updated: September 16, 2015
Published: May 27, 2011
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Meowing, growling, yowling, screeching, purring, hissing, spitting… cats are capable of engaging in a surprising array of vocal maneuvers. It’s all in the service of communication, of course, but that doesn’t mean we always have to like it.

Take my cats, for instance. I’m always trying to feed them stealthily, making nary a peep as I approach their bowls. Unfortunately, they’re constitutionally incapable of keeping quiet as they’re being fed.

Once they see me exit the house at the correct time of day, they start peep-peeping. Then as the food is being served, they’ll sometimes work up to a full vocal frenzy with their, grawwwwls, creeeeks, meooowls and me-oooooows, thereby alerting Señora T-Rex, our formidable queen hen, that cat food has been served. Señora T-Rex then comes crashing through the underbrush, forcing all of us into a withering retreat.

I mean, they know she’ll show if they’re loud. So why all the opera when it’s time for a clandestine dinnertime?

Beats me. But it’s better than what many of my clients have to endure. The incessant peri-mealtime vocalization is intense enough to induce obesity—in the cats, I mean. Then there’s the wake-up call. Or the hissing-spitting-growling-yowling in the yard.

Dogs can be yappy, for sure, but cats can be surprisingly LOUD. And persuasive. A screaming cat at the back of a cage? It’s time for a rabies pole and a dart gun (at least a towel and a syringe full of Kitty Magic). Sorry, but that cat is promising to hurt me.

Back to the meowing, growling, yowling, screeching, purring, hissing, and spitting…

While most of these sounds play their obvious roles in cat communication, the pedestrian meow can be the most confounding. Because it’s the most common of feline sounds in a cat-human context, the meow can be an incredibly nuanced, multipurpose communication tool. What does she mean by that?

Mostly, experts agree: Cats meow most often because they want something. But most cats also have meows that mean different things at different times, expressing different wants and needs they might have. Play time vs. patio time vs. feeding time, for example.

The interesting thing about meows is that adult cats don’t often meow at one another. Behaviorists have postulated that momma cats are used to having their kittens meow when they need things and therefore they associate meowing with asking for stuff. And since humans are so good at giving, in the context of domestication, why not ask?

But when the asking gets continuous, or turns into an obsessive, repetitive behavior (think of the now-cognitively challenged geriatric kitty pacing and meowing all night long), we start to get concerned. Is there something missing from her diet? Am I doing something wrong as a cat owner? Is her nighttime vocalization part of the normal after hours routine for our crepuscular cats? Or is it a symptom of anxiety or neurologic deterioration?

Whatever the case, it’s time to truck off to the vet’s to make sure nothing sickly is amiss. And if not, perhaps your veterinarian has some significant advice to offer. But for those who are serious about changing a cat’s behavior through behavior modification, a certified behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist should be strongly considered.

How about your cats? Do you suffer the agony of the vocal cat? Or do those delicious peeps just keep you wondering why anyone could ever think anything other than happy thoughts at the sound of a kitty’s sotto voce?

Dr. Patty Khuly

Image: David Sutterlütti / Flickr

Last reviewed on September 16, 2015