- Cats mostly meow to humans — in greeting, to get attention, and of course, when they want food.
- The length and volume of the meow, and your cat’s body language, can offer clues about their mood.
- To improve your bond, speak calmly, watch their pupils, and let them rub against you to share scent.
Cats communicate with a vast vocabulary of meows, howls, and purrs — but meowing, in particular, started when humans began keeping cats as pets.
Before domestication, cats mainly communicated through smells, usually by rubbing themselves against objects, says Amanda O’Brien, a cat behavior specialist at The Discerning Cat.
“Since humans don’t have a great sense of smell compared to felines, cats needed to find another way to communicate with us once they started their domestic ventures,” O’Brien says.
Since cats are more likely to meow to humans than each other, a vocal feline friend is probably vying for your attention.
Here are the most common meows your kitty uses to communicate and what each of them might mean.
Different types of meows
“Humans use different tones of voice to communicate different emotions, and cats have developed the same response,” O’Brien says.
Here’s what your cat’s telling you, according to O’Brien:
- A quick meow: This is usually a greeting, especially if you’ve just entered the same area.
- A long, drawn-out meow: This typically means your cat wants something, like food or attention.
- Repeated meows: If your cat is particularly excitable or friendly, they might keep “chatting” just to get your attention.
- A high-pitched meow: This might mean your cat is hungry.
“But it’s not just the volume or pitch of the sound that matters — it’s also how long they keep it up,” says Melissa Brock, a veterinarian at Pango Pets.
For instance, a short, high-pitched meow could be an invitation like, “Hey, come pet me.” But if your cat only meows once or twice and stops when you ignore them, they’re probably just bored and want attention, Brock says.
What do other cat sounds mean?
Other sounds like growling, hissing, and purring can also have a variety of meanings.
Cats start to purr as kittens, and mothers sometimes purr to let their babies know that mom is home and there’s no danger in sight.
Purring often indicates that your cat trusts you and feels content. However, purring can sometimes indicate worry or agitation. For example, your kitty might purr to self-soothe.
“Be mindful of their body language when they’re purring. If they flatten their ears and raise their fur, they are definitely not happy,” O’Brien says.
If your cat shows their teeth, pants, or purrs in a higher voice than usual, they most likely feel distressed.
A growl can indicate anything from anxiety to terror. A cat who growls with abruptly fluffed hair on their back or tail or a dramatically arched spine is probably extremely upset.
You shouldn’t touch your cat while they’re growling, as they might bite you when frightened. If they respond this way when they see another cat, it’s a good idea to quickly separate the two before a fight breaks out.
A cat’s hiss sounds like air leaving a tire. Hissing or spitting usually means they’re incredibly distressed. You might also notice your cat’s tail twitching or swishing in agitation.
Hissing is often the final warning sign before they lash out with their claws or teeth.
If your cat constantly hisses or seems agitated often, you may want to check in with your vet. Chronic nervousness can cause stress-related health issues like eating too much or a weakened immune system, both of which can contribute to obesity and infections.
Deciphering your cat’s meows
We tend to assume that when our cat meows in one way, it means one thing, and when they meows another way, it means something totally different, Brock says.
But cats are more nuanced: One meow can convey a whole range of meanings — and research suggests people can’t decipher specific information from cat vocalizations all that well. Your interpretation of their cries tends to depend on things like your experience with cats, your gender, and your empathy toward them.
For example, researchers found that female participants and those who’d spent a lot of time around cats were more likely to correctly translate cat sounds.
But with a little work, you can learn to understand your kitty. To improve your cat communication skills, try these three tips:
1. Share smells
Letting your cat rub their chin, mouth, or head along your hand or leg helps you mingle your scents, making them feel more connected to you. This increases their trust by helping them distinguish you from a potential intruder or threat.
2. Keep your tone of voice and body language consistent
Cats are extremely sensitive and can pick up on your emotions from subtle cues, like a louder voice, stomping, or sweeping gestures.
“Try not to let your frustration show when talking with them — they’ll pick up on it regardless of how hard you try not to show it.” Brock says.
Your stress can increase their stress, so take care how you show your frustration next time you come home after a long day.
3. Check their pupils
It turns out your cat’s eyes also offer a window to their soul. While their pupils typically grow larger at night and shrink in broad daylight, pupil size can give you insight into what they’re feeling and how to respond.
Wide, dilated pupils might mean your cat is scared or excited. Check their ears if you’re unsure which one your kitty is experiencing. Upright, forward-facing ears suggest your cat is excited or curious — they’re ready to play and might want you to join. However, flattened ears might mean they’re upset.
Smaller pupils at night (like surfboard-shaped pupils) may mean your cat feels uncertain and might need a little reassurance. If they’re staring at a new toy or person this way, going with them to investigate may help soothe their fears.
“Cats meow as a result of domestication because it’s a sound that humans can understand,” Brock says.
Just like humans have different ways of showing emotion, cats have different ways of sharing feelings through sounds. Your cat’s meow could mean they’re hungry, scared, or just bored and want to play or cuddle.
Listening and responding to your cat’s vocalizations can improve your ability to decipher a particular meow, making you a better cat whisperer.