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Cat Talk: Cat Meowing

Understanding Cats' Meowing

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Even Kittens Talk With Meows

Even Kittens Talk With Meows

Photo Credit: © Amy Shojai, CABC from "Complete Kitten Care"

Meowing can sound charming at first, but quickly becomes obnoxious. Cat language—what I call “felinese”—is composed of a combination of body postures, scent signals and vocalizations. Humans are scent-blind compared to cats, and we often overlook tail talk and ear signals that make up the majority of their communication. But feline yowls, growls, hisses and purrs get our undivided attention—especially at 5:00 a.m.

Kinds of Meowing

There are four major categories: murmur patterns include purrs and trills; vowel patterns are meows in all their variations (cats can produce several diphthongs, too); articulated patterns are chirps and chattering that express frustration; and strained intensity patterns are warnings such as hisses and growls. Experts also speculated that some cat vocalizations may be so subtle, or pitched at such a high frequency, that only other cats can hear these “silent meows.”

Not all cats are vocal. Persians and the beautiful blue Chartreux breeds, for instance, tend to be rather quiet. Others never shut up. Siamese and Oriental-type breeds are especially talkative. My cat Seren(dipity) holds long, drawn-out conversations and insists on having the last word.

What Does Meowing Mean? 

Felines use a wide range of vocalizations to communicate with other cats, but seem to reserve “meows” primarily for talking to their people. What exactly does Kitty want? Is she hurling cat-curses at you, praising your taste in art, or just pestering you for the fun of it?

Meows are demands: let me OUT, let me IN, pet me, play with me, FEED me! As the cat becomes more passionate and insistent, his meows grow more strident and lower-pitched. Meow demands most frequently take place in the wee hours of the night, when owners want to sleep.

Midnight Meowing 

Cats normally sleep 16 hours a day, and are most active at night when mousy prey is about. Kitty goes through the motions of mouse-patrol whether outside or indoors. It’s aggravating, but it’s normal.

The determined and savvy cat visits the bedroom, and may even snuggle and sleep with you for a portion of the night. But then she decides you've both had enough sleep. She first offers loving head-bonks, nibbles your nose or toes, or drops toys on your head. If that doesn’t rouse you, the meows escalate.

Soon, the human is desperate to shut off the caterwauling. Once you roll out of bed, Kitty scampers ahead of you, leading the way to (often) the empty food bowl. Sometimes, there’s still food available—but Kitty wants a dinner companion to watch her eat. Filling the bowl may, indeed, temporarily stop the yowls. It’s hard to meow with a mouthful of kibble. But something else is going on.

You have been trained by the best!

Out-Thinking Loud-Mouth Cats

Giving in to meow-demands tells the cat that pestering you is an effective means of getting her way. Putting the pillow over your head, yelling at her, or pushing her off the bed still gives her the attention she craves. It teaches the cat that the longer she persists, the more likely she’ll succeed.

There are health issues that can prompt excess meowing. Deaf cats, old cats suffering from kitty Alzheimer's, stressed kitties suffering from separation anxiety, and those with thyroid, heart or kidney issues may yowl.

But in otherwise healthy cats, the only way to extinguish this behavior is to totally ignore the cat. That means, you DON’T get up to feed her; you DON’T indulge in toe-tag games; you DON’T yell at her, spray her with water, or give any attention at all. That’s hard to do when she’s paw-patting your nose, or shaking the windows with yowls.

What to do? You practice tough kitty-love.

Invest in earplugs, shut the bedroom door, or confine the cat to another room on the other side of the house. It can take weeks to months to get rid of this behavior if it’s been going on for a while. Be aware that the behavior will get WORSE right before it goes away. Behaviorists call this an extinction burst, so be prepared and don't give in.

It’s either that, or you can remain at the beck and cat-call of your favorite feline.

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