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Understanding the Language of Cats

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Some cats are talkers. Blackstone, for instance, is a big complainer. Whenever he's frustrated or annoyed, I have to listen to his loud lament. He also tells me when he's pleased or scared, and sometimes he lets me know that he just wants my company and a good chat.

"Have you come to visit me Blackstone?" I ask. He says, "Meow," as he rubs his head against my face. "Would you like a good scratch behind the ears?" "Meow." He half closes his eyes, completely blissed-out, and I am rewarded by the loudest, most contented "purrrr." Of course, when I stop petting him, he complains. "Meow, meow, meow!" and butts my hand with his head, or gently digs a claw into my arm. "Me-OW!"


Owners who talk to their cats a lot tend to have chattier kittiens. Communication begins in kittenhood when newborns learn to interpret their mother's sounds and respond by mewing or purring, expressing distress or contentment. A cat's vocabulary increases as it matures and adapts to the sounds and actions of its human companions: Cats respond to our tone of voice, attentiveness, and responsiveness as well as to the behaviors that mean something to them: "Good kitty," followed by a treat; or, "Does kitty want to play?" and we produce a cat toy.

In return, we respond to the tone and type of mewing our cats make as they tell us to please feed them, open the door, or pet them.  What they "say," is accompanied by body language and facial expressions. For instance, a cat will run back and forth between its owner and the door, then sit and look up at the door, look back at its owner, and "Meow." This "meow" could be either a polite, "Please let me out," or an annoyed, "Open this door!"

The problem child

Usually, we're happy to have our cats talk to us, telling us what they need. But too much vocalizing, especially in the middle of the night, quickly becomes too much of a good thing.

Hypervocalizing can happen for many reasons:

  • Illness/medical condition
  • Frustration-for instance, an outdoor cat becoming an indoor cat
  • Boredom, when a cat is not stimulated enough
  • Aggression triggered by another cat or animal
  • Anxiety/stress/fear
  • Depression from the loss of a companion
  • Coming into heat (estrus cycle)

What to do

The first thing to know is that yelling, shushing, and scolding are responses that only encourage the cat's problematic behavior. To the feline brain, it's like attention on steroids.

Unusual and excessive vocalizing can mean that your cat is in pain or is suffering from an undiagnosed medical condition.

  • If your older cat begins yowling and meowing more than usual, going to the vet is the first course of action to rule out a medical problem.
  • If there are any behavioral changes along with the vocalizing-wanting to be fed more often, peeing outside the litter box, or hiding under the bed-a trip to the vet is warranted.

Therefore, it's always best, as a first response, to have your cat thoroughly checked out by your vet. If you're confident the cause is not medical, there are some practical steps you can take to deal with the problem:

  • The best way to discourage unwanted behavior is, first, not to react to the vocalizing while it's happening and then to provide extra attention when the cat is quiet. 
  • If you notice that your cat is racing around the house and meowing, the explanation may simply be pent up energy. Adding some extra playtime every evening, before going to bed, will give your cat the exercise and attention it needs.
  • If the issue is your cat coming into your bedroom and jumping on the bed and meowing, use earplugs and close your door for as many nights as it takes to discourage this behavior.
  • Neutering your cat will curtail the caterwauling, which is loud wailing and yowling, intended to attract a mate.

The pleasure we take in communicating with our cat companions takes many forms: vocal, physical, behavioral and psychological. In fact, we teach each other -- uman to cat, and cat to human -- what we need, like, and dislike, as we live together, bond, and grow familiar with each other's personalities. Vocalizing is one of the pleasures, although it can sometimes also prove to be a behavioral challenge. 

Of course, when you and your cat understand each other perfectly, then enjoy the chat and give your kitty a nice pat on the head and a scratch under the chin.

"Who's my good boy? Who's the best kitty in the whole world?"



Credit: Reviewed by Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS and John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhD
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