Why Do Adult Cats Meow Only to People?

When you think of sounds that a cat makes, the “meow” is the quintessential cat cry. Meow is an onomatopoeia, which means the word is spelled how it sounds.

Meowing is a way that cats communicate with humans. Although kittens will meow to their mothers, adult cats very rarely will meow to other cats and animals.

Meowing is a Demand

When a cat is meowing, they are indicating that they want something. When a cat wants to say hello to you, they may trill or chirrup. When they want to show you affection, they may start purring.

A cat may be meowing to tell you that they are hungry and want to be fed. Or the cat may want you to open the door to let them out.

Your cat may meow to let you how very very upset they are that you are driving them to the vet.

And sometimes, your cat may be meowing and you just can’t figure out what they want.

Orange tabby yawning.

Meowing is Something House Cats Learn

Meowing as adult cats is something only cats that have been socialized with adults learn to do.

A study (Yeon et al., 2011) that compared vocalizations between feral and house cats found that differences in how those cats communicated.

Feral cats mostly hissed and growled in response to humans and other animals. House cats had more directed vocalizations towards humans. The house cats in the study meowed frequently and directly to humans, indicating that the cats were communicating.

This indicates that meowing is a learned behavior by socialized cats to interact with humans.

Communicate With Your Cat

While your cat may not understand most of your words, tone and body language will help your cat communicate with you.

American aviator John B. Moisant looking at cat on his shoulder.
American aviator John B. Moisant looking at cat on his shoulder. 1911. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

When your cat meows, trills, or chirrups to you, respond back with a friendly tone and some nice pets. Creating a positive interaction with your cat when they try to communicate will encourage them.

Some Cats Meow More Than Others

As with people, some cats are just more “talkative” than other cats. Some cats won’t meow much and may communicate more with body language such as purring, head butting, and rubbing up against you.

Other cats seem to constantly be talking whenever they are around you.

What George asked the cat. Drawing by Alice Barber Stephens, 1888.
What George asked the cat. Drawing by Alice Barber Stephens, 1888. Library of Congress.

Some breeds are known for being more “talkative.” Well known talkative breeds include Siamese, Manx, the Bengal, and Tonkinese cats.

Change in Vocalization of Your Cat

If your cat seems to be vocalizing more frequently and urgently, it may be a sign that they are in distress. As with any sudden or marked change, be sure to consult with your vet about your cat’s health.

References

Yeon, S. C., Kim, Y. K., Park, S. J., Lee, S. S., Lee, S. Y., Suh, E. H., … & Lee, H. J. (2011). Differences between vocalization evoked by social stimuli in feral cats and house cats. Behavioural processes87(2), 183-189. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beproc.2011.03.003

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