Tagged with " attention"

Me, What? What Your Cat’s Meow is Really Saying

Mar 17, 2013 by     1 Comment     Posted under: Tips & Advice

Bet your cat knows how to tell you when she’s hungry. Most cats have very dramatic and prolonged meows that let their humans know when it’s time for dinner—and translation assistance is definitely not needed! Those demanding meows tell us exactly what our cats are thinking.

And it turns out that is precisely their point.

Here is the funny thing about those meows…they’re only meant for us. If you have more than one cat, pay attention to the way they interact. Communication is fairly complicated in the feline family, and your cats will talk to one another by using growls, trills, hisses, prrrrps, chirps and even yowls. But what you won’t hear is one meowing to another.

Cats also communicate through scent—they head butt, rub against each other, and mark their homes with invisible scent: a feline “X marks the spot” so all other cats will know who lives there. All these unique signposts and signals make up feline language and are how cats talk with one another.

But sometime during those thousands of years of domestication, our favorite species has evolved a highly-sophisticated secondary speech that is reserved only for its communication and interaction with humans. When your cat meows at you, she is actually “managing” you, and generally making a request or a complaint.

Of course we pay attention—what good cat parent wouldn’t? And when we respond, our cats learn which meow tone and volume is most effective at eliciting a desired behavior from us. Basically, what this means is our cats are training us to do their bidding. Surprised? Didn’t think so. Most of us are very aware that our cats can easily get us to do things for them. But knowing that our cats have a whole different language just for humans? That’s a little scary. Who knows what will come next! World domination?

Tiny kittens will meow at their mother to get attention, but once they are grown, that type of communication stops. So why do cats continue to meow to people? Because it works. Researchers at Cornell University have determined that cats shape and adjust their meows to get what they want from their humans, whether that is food, attention or access to something they desire.

So what makes up an “effective” meow? How does your cat manage your emotions and manipulate you to her own devices? Generally, the louder and more urgent the meow, the less pleasant we people find it, and the faster we jump to attention. These meows tend to be more drawn out, with more force toward the end of the sound, like: Meee-O-O-O-W-W! This is the “I want” frequency. A more pleasant, simple, softer MEE-ow, is a “hello, how are you” greeting. Your cat might say that when you come home from work or when you walk into a room where your cat is resting.

The tone of your cat’s meow is carefully calculated to be at a frequency that is most likely to elicit a response from us. So my little chatty cat has his own secondary language “dialect” that is reserved just for me and my husband. He knows exactly what is needed to make us do what he wants. Your cat has your number as well, but his or her meow tone might be very different because that particular meow is crafted specifically for you.

Most of us humans learn pretty quickly what each individual variation on the demanding meow means. I’d say in general we’re motivated and fast learners, and our cats must be pleased with our progress. Who knows what they’ll get us to do in the next thousand years? My guess is it won’t be just sit and stay!

Dr Cathy Lund

Cathy Lund, DVM, owns and operates City Kitty Veterinary Care for Cats, a cat practice located in Providence, RI. She is also the board president and founder of the Companion Animal Foundation, a statewide, veterinary-based nonprofit organization that helps low-income pet owners afford essential veterinary care. She lives in Providence, and serves on several architectural and preservation commissions in the city, and is on the board of directors of WRNI, RI’s own NPR station. But her favorite activity is to promote the countless virtues of the “purr-fect” pet, the cat!

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