How well do you understand your cat’s meows?
A study performed by Dr. Nicholas Nicastro, Ph.D., revealed that cat owners could successfully identify the meaning of a cat’s meow 4 times out of 10. The study participants were asked to identify the meaning of the meow in a more general sense (e.g., is the cat happy, discontent, etc.) and they were also asked to translate the cat’s meow in a more specific sense (e.g., Is the cat asking for food? Is the cat injured? Annoyed? Content?)
Dr. Nicastro did his doctoral thesis on humans’ ability to understand meows. The study participants were asked to identify the meaning of the cat’s meow only; they were not provided with any visual cues or context. When provided with visual context, the meow translations are even more accurate. The individuals who didn’t own cats scored much lower on the tests.
Notably, cats who are born and live in the wild — feral cats — do not use meowing to communicate with humans (though some individuals may develop this habit later in life if the feral is successfully tamed and domesticated.) This fact, in addition to many others discovered through research studies, has led many scientists to believe that cats have specifically developed a language intended for exclusive use with humans.
Meowing as a form of communication is an interesting topic, as it’s a behavior that’s reserved primarily for humans.
Mother cats — called queens — will make soft vocalizations that are a sweet blend purring and meowing to communicate with their kittens, but once the kittens are grown, the meowing stops. As adults, cats communicate with other felines using a blend of body language and scent-based communication. Meowing is used with kittens because they lack the ability to read body language (remember, their eyes are closed for the first two weeks of life) and until about four weeks of age, they lack the coordination to communicate using their body language. Quite simply, meowing is a last resort form of communication; one that works when the cat’s traditional approach isn’t practical.
But many cats do meow to communicate with their humans. The reason? Domesticated cats quickly realize that humans don’t pick up on their subtle body language cues and scent cues, so they quickly realize that meowing is an effective way to get your attention.
In fact, meowing at humans is a behavior that’s only present in cats who have been raised around humans. Feral cats do not meow at humans as a form of communication (though some may develop this habit if they’re successfully tamed and domesticated.) The act of meowing at a human is an easy way to determine whether a stray has been owned at some point in time or if they’re a true feral, who has lived his or her entire life in the wild.