Cat Experts Reveal the Meaning Behind Your Cats MeowKeith
Interpret You Cats Meow
Although there isn’t a lot of research on cat voices, meow experts — yes, there are some! — say the explanation probably lies in the same complicated mish mash that leads to different human voices: Anatomy, like body size or vocal cord length; gender; the amount of effort the cat puts into talking; and their individual personality. Breed, such as it exists in the average moggie cat, likely also plays a role.
Some basics on cat conversation — or vocalizations, as researchers say they make. In 1944, researcher Mildred Moelk outlined what remains the definitive — though still debated – cat lexicon. She identified 16 sound patterns in three categories, and they include much more than meows. There are the mouth-open, heavy breathing sounds, such as hissing and shrieking, which cats use when they’re feeling aggressive. There are sounds cats make with their mouths closed, such as purrs and trills; those seem to indicate contentedness.
Cats make more typical meow sounds by opening and closing their mouths, and those sounds can be friendly or demanding. But adult cats meow only to humans, not to each other, probably because their mothers stopped responding once they were weaned.
“Cats vocalize so well to us because they’ve learned that we humans are really not all that on the ball in figuring out what the tail swish means, what the ear twitch means,” said Gary Weitzman, president and CEO of the San Diego Humane Society and author of “How to Speak Cat.”
But people do respond to cat calls — with their own voices or their can openers — in part because they are charmed by a sound that almost resembles a language, said Nicholas Nicastro, who published two widely-cited studies on meows more than a 10 years ago. But it’s not one, he said.
“It’s clearly not a situation where they’re saying specific things. I have to emphasize that for some people, this is a radical idea. I get people telling me all the time, ‘I know what my cat is telling me,’ ” said Nicastro, who studied whether people could listen to cat sounds and identify the circumstances in which they were made. They could — but only slightly better than half the time.
Cats are “trying to get what they want, or even need. But it’s only language in a very loose sense,” he said.
Researchers have reached only a couple of conclusions about cats’ vocalisations, but they’re interesting ones. One study of South Korean cats found that domesticated felines make shorter and higher-pitched meows than feral cats, suggesting that socialization matters. African wild cats also make lower meows that human subjects surveyed by Nicastro found to be “much less pleasant to listen to” than those of their domesticated descendants, he said. Nicastro — who is now n authort says his meow research was his most attention-getting work — theorized that sweet meows evolved over millenniums as people selected house cats who made nicer noises.