The cat’s voice is just one of the methods of communication that felines use. It is the form of communication preferred by humans because it is most recognisable to us.
The ‘miaow’ is the classic and most common cat sound and it can have various meanings, ranging from an expectant request to an angry demand. With experience, an attentive owner can come to identify the subtle differences of what a cat is trying to say when it meows.
Cats reserve meowing for ‘talking’ with their owners and they can make many variations in tone to convey different emotions. The miaow of a kitten stuck up a tree will certainly reflect this.
Cats first miaow when as small kittens they make a plaintive, mewing sound in order to get their mother’s attention. Vocal communication between a mother and her kittens is important and can be used for gathering the litter together, greeting and warning. As domestic cats get older, they build on this sound making subtle variations on it, depending on what they want to communicate to their owners, who are like `surrogate’ mothers to them.
A cat’s miaow can have varying meanings in different contexts but the basic message is ‘I want attention’. Cats then modify the miaow according to the situation. For example, if your cat wants to be let out of the house, it will probably make a soft, flat miaow. Most cat owners will recognise the expectant miaow their cats make when they hear the can opener or rattle of dry food! A pitiful, drawn-out miaow is not hard to detect, if your cat is shut outside when it’s cold or raining.
A cat’s miaow can even sound irritated; cats are creatures of routine and they don’t like the order of things being disrupted, particularly feeding time!
Owners can learn to become very attuned to what their cat is trying to say to them. With experience and by listening and observing carefully, you can be alert to your cat’s vocal language and the different nuances of its voice.
- Most cat owners recognise the miaow that accompanies their cat’s demand for food.
- The cat’s miaow varies in tone and pitch according to breed; the Siamese has the widest tone range with around 40 different calls.
- The writer Paul Gallico wrote a manual for cats called The Silent Miaow, reputedly `translated’ from the feline, which explained to cats how to exploit humans.
- Cats have been known to save their owners in fires, by raising the alarm with their voices, rather than first escaping themselves. A cat called Duke woke the two daughters of the family at a fire in their home in Kansas, USA, and would not stop miaowing until the whole family were safe.
Q. Why do some cats miaow more than others?
Like people, some cats are more ‘talkative’ than others. How vocal cats are can also depend on the breed. Siamese cats, for example, are very loud while longhaired breeds can hardly be heard.
Q. How can I understand what my cat wants when she miaows?
If you’re patient and observe carefully, in time you’ll come to recognise what your cat is telling you. Trial and error will teach you how your cat responds to your actions when she’s being vocal.
Q. Can cats distinguish between human voices?
Yes. If your cat is hiding and cannot – as happens – get out, she can miaow to direct you to where she is. You can train your cat to miaow on command by using a reward when she miaows in response to hearing her name called.