Why Do Cats Meow?

Posted on 17 Dec 2015 19:32 by EricT

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We say meow. The Japanese say nyaa. This is how we interpret that sound that our pet cats make. Oddly enough, cats do not often "meow" to other cats! It is a sound that seems to be reserved mostly for humans. It also seems as if cats were using this sound on humans in ancient times.

Ancient Egyptian Word for Cat

While neither English speakers or Japanese speakers derived our word for our feline friends from the sounds they make, the Ancient Egyptian may have, at least in part. Felis silvestris lybyca the African wildcat that our modern domestic cats derived from, must have been meowing all over the place. The Egyptians interpreted the sound as miu, which has also been rendered as mau, miy, or miit, depending on the source (but let's stick with mau). This was their word for cat.

The Egyptians are not alone. In Thailand, the cat is meo and in China, mao. Onomatopoeic names are not uncommon, then, and really just underscore how often out cats meow at us, all over the world.

Cats were revered, and even worshiped, in Egyptian society. In fact, during the reign of the pharaohs, killing a cat was a crime punishable by death.

It is doubtful that this reverence derived from plaintive meows coming from thousands of Egyptian cats.

How Do Cats Meow?

The basic sound of the meow, or the nyaa, is nothing more than a vocalization the cat makes by opening its mouth and slowly closing it. They can't create different vowel sounds or consonant sounds, so any change they make to the sound has to do with the strength of the air passing over the vocal cords or how slow they close their mouth, or both. The Siamese, known for its loud vocalizations, is the only cat with its own unique accent. Although you will hear individual cats with their own odd meow sound, most cats meows sound remarkably similar, owing to the hardware they have for producing sounds.

But why do they meow?

I don't mean why do they meow to us. We know why cats do this, at least those of use who know out cats know why they are meowing, most of the time. The different inflections and timings can mean demand, complaint, confusion, or simple greeting or acknowledgment. But here we have a sound cats are making to humans which their wild cousins hardly never, if ever make! What sound is this that is part of a cat's repertoire, yet is almost exclusively reserved for humans? Cats that are just hanging around with other adult cats rarely meow at one another. Yet, there are other sounds, like that little cat trill or chirp of greeting or affection, or the purr, that they use with each other and with us. And of course, the hiss, or the growl, may be used by any pissed off cat toward any creature.


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Give me some food! Now!

Obviously, wild cats didn't just decide to invent a new sound with which to influence humans. Regardless of whether an adult cat would routinely use such a sound with another adult cat, or whether wild cats would use it, it has to be a part of the innate range of vocalizations that a cat possesses, and cats make many other sounds beside meow!

We humans make certain vocalizations when were are infants. Infants cry. This is the only way they can communicate. Listen to a litter of kittens, and you will make the connection. The cat's meow grows out of the sounds kittens make to signal distress. To call to mom. Momma cat responds to this sound just as a human mother responds to the sound of baby crying. We humans see out cats as babies, much of the time. I think you see why cat's associated with humans would retain and then develop the sound they were born with. Humans respond to it! As their humans respond to the different meow sounds they make, a cat will modify and develop their own ways of meowing, but it still tends to fall within a range. Whether you want to believe there is a true language involved, or that an individual cat simply learns by trial and error how to make the right sounds to get what they want, they certainly do talk to us enough.

As well, while some cats meow quite often, if not constantly, others may not meow very much at all. Certainly certain breeds, such as Siamese, are more noisy than others. Then there is even that strange silent meow that happens from time to time. You know, when your cat just looks up at you and mouths a silent meow, as if he's suddenly developed a severe case of laryngitis? My cat does this when very hungry, as if to say, "I'm too weak with hunger to even make a sound." Cats are also known to do this when they know they cannot be heard! Have you ever mouthed a word at someone, perhaps through a window, expecting them to read your lips? Do you find it remarkable that a cat knows we can read their lips? Or, at least, they know that just making the motions will work, at least, if they have gotten the appropriate reaction from us in the past.

It seems likely that a cat's environment and upbringing, especially early association with humans, should make a big difference in a cat's individual voice. I have recently read it suggested that humans cannot 'mold' a cat during kittenhood. While the cat is certainly its own individual, many take this to be some kind of "cat credo." Kittens are without a doubt molded by how humans interact with them and when they interact with them. Of course cats are individuals. So too are humans, individuals. But we are each also molded by our environment.

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