Understanding our cat's (manipulative?) meows!

Recently, we wrote about the different meanings of dog barks and how dogs and humans have a special bond that allows dogs to effectively communicate their needs, wishes and warnings to humans, and humans to understand these in order to respond just as our dogs would like us to! Who’s training who, is the question – for another day! Today we’re tackling the myriad forms of vocalizations cats make, of which anyone who’s had one or more cats are very familiar with.

“Meow….!” “mrrowwwr?” “myeep myeep!” “RROOOOOOOOOOWWWWWW!”

If you have a cat, you’re probably nodding your head knowingly right now, all too familiar with these and many other meows, chirps, and purrs your feline friends make. Cat owners are just as adamant as dog owners with their understanding of just what their cats are “saying.” In fact, more cat owners than dog owners claim to talk to their cats, and in fact, say they have entire “conversations” with their cats – though they may be a little careful about who they disclose this fact to! Cats, more often than dogs, do respond to a human voice with their own vocalization – and so can actually carry on a ‘conversation’ with their human for several rounds… though whether or not the cat is “talking” about the same thing  as their owner, is anyone’s guess.

According to Dr. Nicholas Nicastro, who wrote his PhD thesis in psychology at Cornell University on humans’ ability to understand the meows of cats, we understand meows meaning more clearly than we might think.

First, Nicastro recorded hundreds of meows made in real-life situations between cats and their owners. Next, he had strangers (some of whom had cats and some of whom didn’t) listen to the recordings. He asked them to classify the context in which the meow was produced; for example, “is this a food call or a leave me alone call?” He also asked the strangers more general “emotional valence” questions about the meows, such as “Is this a pleasant sounding call? Does this sound urgent? Does this sound demanding?”

What do you think this cat (and her incessant meowing) is trying to say…?

To determine what the cat was actually trying to communicate, the experimenters examined the resulting behavior the meow elicited and noted the reaction the cat had. For example, if a cat meowed a certain way, and the owner fed it, and the cat then started eating and was quiet, that was deemed to be a food-eliciting meow. Meows were also classified based upon their acoustic qualities including pitch, tone, and duration. Nicastro found “…there are certain acoustical qualities that correlate with something sounding pleasant or sounding urgent, and I speculate that the cats can use these acoustical changes to manage our impressions of how their meows sound to get what they want out of their human caretakers.”

Much like a baby’s cry, urgent meows sound loud, wailing and unpleasant, demanding human attention. Anyone who has a cat with a bit of separation anxiety will immediately think about the howling cry their cat will make when they are left alone and/or don’t know where their owner is. Speaking as one of these cat owners, what do I do when my Swan cries plaintively from somewhere in the house? Without fail, I call out to her – and before long, I hear her footsteps pitter-pattering towards my voice, along with accompanying “myeeps” – her chirps that I interpret as, “I’m coming, where are you?” – a completely different pitch, volume level and tone than the originating “WHERE ARE YOU!!!” yowl.  Voila, the cat’s demanding, plaintive cry elicits the desired response!

Calls that sound pleasant are softer, higher in pitch, and don’t seem urgent. “Angry or antagonistic meows tend to be longer in duration and friendly calls tend to be a little shorter, and that correlates with the idea of pleasantness,” said Nicastro. In addition, angry or defensive calls have a lower pitch, while friendly calls have a higher pitch. One theory is that lower pitched vocalizations make the animal  sound bigger and more threatening, while higher pitch calls make them sound small and helpless, which is attractive to humans.

It turns out that those people who owned cats or had some prior experience with cats were pretty good at understanding what the cats were trying to communicate with their meows whereas people who had no experience with cats didn’t do well at all. Cat owners correctly interpreted twice as many meows as those who didn’t have cats, but only were successful 40 percent of the time. To put this in context, humans’ ability to understand what someone else is saying, assuming they are speaking and understanding the same language, is between 95 percent and 98 percent. This means, ultimately, we have a long way to go before people are fluent in the language of cats.

Meowing is a unique cat-to-human communication attempt: cats don’t meow to other cats! Just like dogs and their multitude of barks, cats are bridging the species divide in communicating – perhaps this is why we love bringing domestic cats and dogs into our homes, and make them our family members. We do have the ability to understand them… as long as we’re listening.

To listen to an NPR interview with Dr. Nicastro about his research on meows and “cat language”, click here.