Meowsic to your ears
I’ll admit it, when I started writing this blog post I just wanted the excuse to sit on Youtube for hours and watch cat videos. Anything for science, right?
Now I’ve heard a lot of weird claims about cats over the years, such as cats domesticating themselves or that their meows purposefully sound like the cries of a baby. But how much of this is true? I wanted to find out the truth behind cat communication.
When I started researching cat meows I was pleasantly surprised at how much information was out there and how much interest we seem to have in the vocalisations of our feline friends. People really like cats and they really like the (mostly) cute noises they make.
In particular, I stumbled across Doctor Suzanne Schötz, a Swedish professor of phonetics who researches cat language as well as human. Doctor Schötz has combined her love of phonetics and her love of cats, and is a cat language researcher. Well, you know what they say: if you’re doing what you love, you never work a day in your life.
Overcoming the Language Barrier
Cat-human interactions are actually pretty unique. Unlike other feline species, domestic cats willingly form close relationships with humans. Furthermore, cats have a special way of communicating with us. Have you ever noticed that cats don’t meow at each other? Sure they may growl or hiss, or a mother cat may chirp at her babies, but meowing between adult cats just doesn’t happen. In fact, most cat communication is conveyed through odour or body language.
This secret cat language is mostly lost on us humans, so cats have come up with a way to communicate with their two-legged friends. Cats quickly learned that we couldn’t understand them, so they started vocalising instead. What they couldn’t convey though body language is now said through meows. Hungry? Meow. Want to go outside? Meow. Your favourite mouse toy stuck under the fridge? Meow meow meow.
Knowing that cats use meowing to communicate with us doesn’t seem like rocket science to me. What I really want to know is that do cats have different meows, and if so, can I understand my cat’s secret kitty language?
This meow is a warning: touch my tummy again and you’ll face the consequences.
Video credit: author’s own.
Communicating in Cat
I quickly found that, yes, cats do have different meows for different situations and that their vocalisations can be pretty complex.
One study showed that people could tell the difference between meows made by cats who wanted food and meows made by cats who were visiting the vet. Another article suggested that humans can sometimes listen to a cat’s meow and identify the situation in which it was made, with just over a fifty percent success rate.
I like to think I have a pretty good ear for understanding what my cat wants. She’s been my fluffy companion for nearly 16 years this year, and I can definitely tell a hungry meow apart from a greeting meow. She also has one particular meow that she uses when she wants to sit in my lap and that I should make myself available ASAP.
Over the years cats have adapted their vocalisations to get a desired response from their human companions, and for the most part we’re pretty good at deciphering what they want.
So thank you to evolution for allowing me to have a conversation with my cat, even if it mostly consists of us meowing at each other from opposite ends of the house.
- If you’re interested in Dr Schötz her research, check out this webpage: http://vr.humlab.lu.se/projects/meowsic/
- A Washington Post article where cat’s meows are analysed: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/animalia/wp/2016/02/24/meow-experts-agree-your-cat-is-demanding-but-maybe-not-that-grumpy/?utm_term=.52125faee700
- This video of a cat greeting its owner after being left alone for a few days: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=15&v=QjeNh2lLXDU