Hello! Feed me! Let me-out! Pet me! Play with me!
Your cat’s meow is generally your cat’s way of greeting you, or telling you he wants something. And his meows (distinguished from other vocalizations) are meant for your human ears alone–adult cats reserve meowing as a way of communicating with their owners, not their fellow cats.
In the wild, meowing is a juvenile vocalization that kittens make when they need their mothers that fades away as they mature. But domesticated cats, which tend to think of themselves as our forever offspring, keep talking to their “parents” throughout their adult lives. This chattiness varies with breeds. Persians, for instance, tend to be fairly quiet, while Siamese are especially talkative.
Even though a meow can mean many things, the length and tone of the meow offer clues. For example, there’s a difference between the plaintive, high-pitched cry for food or other want, and a bright, chirpy greeting. Often when they are demanding things, cats will meow multiple times or give a long, drawn-out meow. The greeting meow, in contrast, is often a short meow to say hi, that kitty is happy about or interested in your arrival home.
Cats might also meow because they are scared, stressed or in pain. Older cats often meow more because of failing senses and/or cognitive decline. Excess meowing also frequently occurs with deaf cats and those suffering from thyroid, heart or kidney issues. These meows are more accurately described as yowls, different in length, tone and intensity than the “all-purpose” demand/hi meow.
Like meowing, purring is also something that goes back to kittenhood. Kittens purr when they are breastfeeding. When your cat is purring, she most likely is in kitty heaven, such as when she is lying contentedly in your lap and being pet. But cats also might make these soft, deep, throaty rumbles in anything but pleasant circumstances, such when they are ill or in pain, even when they are on the brink of death, as a way of comforting themselves.
Cats also make a sound in between a meow and a purr, called a trill, characterised by an ascending tone and lasting less than a second. As when they purr, cats trill without opening their mouth. Momcats and kittens trill to one another, but adult cats also use it as a friendly greeting to other cats or humans.
When you understand what your cat is trying to say, you’ll be better able to gauge her mood and needs. And that can only strengthen your bond.