Tuesday, 16 January 2018

How to speak cat: Why do cats meow?

Some cats can be quite chatty with their owners, but it is often difficult to understand what they are actually trying to say. From a howling meow to a short chirrup, they can make a wide range of different noises to communicate their mood, so to help you decipher their complex language we have put together a handy cat chat guide.

First though, lets tackle that confusing conundrum…

Is it ‘miaow’ or ‘meow’?

Miaow is actually the umbrella term used for a group of cat sounds, including the meow and mew. You can find out more about the meanings of these particular sounds below, but if you’re in doubt about what sound your cat is making, just use ‘miaow’.

Translation: Anything from ‘let me in’ to ‘I want some food’

Meowing isn’t actually used by cats very often to communicate with each other. Instead it is a learned behaviour that they use primarily to communicate with humans, as it usually gets a positive response. For example, if a cat meows and their owner takes it to mean they are hungry, they will provide them with food. The cat then knows that if they use that meow again, they will get fed. This is why a cat will usually develop their own specific range of meows that their owner comes to recognise, such as a short meow for attention and a longer meow for food.

Why do cats meow?

Translation: ‘Mum!’

Mew is the name for the cry of a kitten, which it uses to tell the queen (mother cat) that it is hungry or in distress. They begin making this sound a few days after birth but typically stop when they are around two to three months old.

Translation: ‘Hello’

This short trill is usually used by queens when they call for their kittens, but many domestic cats also use it as a way of greeting humans.

Translation: ‘I’m happy’*

A gentle purr is used by queens and their kittens as a way to let each other know that all is well. Adult cats also purr when they’re feeling content, but a more urgent higher-pitched purr could be a signal for attention instead. *Purring can also be a sign that a cat is in pain, so pay close attention to the context of their purr and if you’re worried then seek advice from the vet.

Translation: ‘Stay back’

Cats will growl if they feel threatened, using it as a warning that they will attack if the threat persists. As cats are solitary animal, they typically use low-pitched growling as a way to make themselves more intimidating to humans and other cats, encouraging them to stay away.

Translation: ‘Leave me alone’

Hissing and spitting are defensive behaviours in cats, used to deter any perceived enemy that may be approaching. If a cat is hissing, you should leave them alone as it is likely to be warning that they are about to scratch or bite.

If you have noticed a change in the type or frequency of sounds your cat is making, it is best to take them to the vet to rule out any underlying health problems, as it could be a sign that they are in pain.

To find out more about why cats miaow, watch Cats Protection Behaviour Manager Nicky Trevorrow explain cat language in our video:


  1. my cat Meows constantly... I've had a wee, I want a wee, I want to poo, I've had a poo, my tray is dirty, my tray is clean, I'm hungry, I'm full, although his best meow was christmas eve morning when he jumped on my chest in bed, meowed and then threw up on me... thanks my little three legged nut case

  2. My cat is loving great fun but some occasions will go for my legs in vicious way don't do it always and he know it naughty as I tell him of

  3. As far as I concern, maybe i am wrong, but the cats only meow to human. Among themselves, or cat to cat communication, they just do not make any sound at all, UNLESS the cats are having quarrel situation or something like we can say, act of to show dominance for a place or something.But for me, a Meow sound each morning, is just an alarm clock for me.

    1. They can occasionally make noise to each other but it's usually a mother to kittens or as you mentioned, defensive/threats.