Usually cats meow because they want something (like food or attention) or because they are expressing an emotion (like loneliness or anger).
Of all the vocal sounds cats use to communicate, perhaps the most familiar is the “meow.” Cats meow in various situations, but one characteristic is common to every meow: It’s directed toward a special few. Why, then, do cats meow?
Only for Mother and Humans
Ironically, adult cats don’t meow to each other. They communicate largely through scent, body language and touch, accompanied by occasional vocal sounds such as growling, yowling, hissing, chattering and shrieking.
In nature, the only cats that meow to each other are a mother and her kittens. Kittens utter a feeble “meow” to solicit their mothers’ attention and care. Domestic cats continue meowing to solicit their owners’ attention and through thousands of years of living with humans have learned that meowing actually works to manipulate their pet parents.
Animal behaviorists believe cats consider their owners as their “mothers” and use meowing to get what they want from them. The general meow varies in volume, pitch, tone and length, and each variation is used for a specific purpose.
A cat will often meow to greet his pet parent who has just come home. He might even meow when meeting his person throughout the house, much like coworkers or fellow students greet each other at various times during the work or school day. The basic greeting meow is short and to the point. The more excited the cat is to see his person, the greater the number of meows.
May I Come In?
A cat might meow to get his person to open a closed door. Sometimes they don’t even want to go out or come in, some cats just don’t like closed doors! This sound tends to be a lengthier, more demanding meow.
Probably the most common reason for a cat’s meow is to tell his person he wants food. Cats are known for sticking to a strict schedule; and if a meal happens to be late, they’ll let their owners know. This mid-pitch meow has a pleading tone.
I Want Attention!
Like children, cats will sometimes meow just to get their owners’ attention. They’ve learned that this method works because usually the person gives in to them. The cat might want to play, be petted or just have a mutual conversation.
If a cat is left alone for a long time, such as when his owner is away at work, he may develop separation anxiety and meow throughout the day. To avoid this behavior, pet parents who must be away from home all day should consider leaving out food puzzles, plenty of toys or even continuous-play videos to keep their cats occupied.
Cats that feel stressed or threatened in a strange situation will often meow excessively. One of the most common examples of stress-related meowing is familiar to cat owners: The cat is riding in a car in an enclosed carrier on the way to the vet!
If a cat feels threatened and becomes angry or agitated, he might meow loudly before he attacks. Sometimes this sound is more like a scream or yowl. It’s best to avoid a cat who’s behaving in this manner.
Senior and geriatric cats sometimes suffer from cognitive problems and display this confusion in excessive, loud meowing. Other signs of senior memory challenges include forgetting to eat, forgetting where the litter box is located and pacing around as if lost.
Pain or Illness
If a cat’s high-pitch excessive meowing comes on suddenly, it could mean an underlying physical condition. He could be in pain or hungry or thirsty due to illness.
Excessive meowing, especially in senior or geriatric cats, could indicate hyperthyroidism or kidney disease. In any case, if a typically quiet cat begins meowing excessively, a trip to the vet is in order.