Decoding Your Cat’s Communication
Nearly all cat owners have experienced their cats meowing at them with a longing expression and many have wondered exactly what they are trying to say.
Cats communicate with each other primarily through physical contact, body language, and scent. Humans, naturally, cannot communicate with felines in the same way. When it comes to scent, cats blow people out of the water—a cat's nose has 45–80 million scent receptors, while the human nose only contains about 5 million.
The only real avenue of communication cats can use with the hand that feeds them is vocalization, or more specifically—meowing. It may be surprising to learn that meowing at humans is a learned behaviour. Adult cats reserve meowing almost exclusively for human interaction—they rarely meow at each other. Kittens may meow at their mothers to get their attention when they’re hungry or hurt, but once they reach adulthood, they mostly stop the behaviour.
Decoding Your Cat’s Meows:
When a cat meows fervently a person, what exactly are they trying to say? Is it possible to interpret these meows in a language that humans can understand?
It most certainly is, according to Dr. Paola Cueves, a veterinarian at ExcitedCats.com. However, there may not be a one-size-fits-all translation. She explains that since humans play the role of caretaker for their pets, cats employ meowing solely to elicit a response from their humans. “Humans can interpret a cat’s meow in the context of a specific scenario, and communication is a two-way learning experience. In other words, the meows do not mean anything specific until we give them a meaning.”
This means there is currently no human-to-feline standard edition dictionary available. Instead, communication between you and your pet is unique to you and your cat. Of course, your rapport with your cat influences this. Dr. Cueves adds, “studies have found that meowing is a tool for cats to communicate emotional states to their owners—but our interpretation is limited to our experience with our cats and influenced by our affinity towards them.”
Can Technology Help Us Better Communicate with Our Cats?
New technology and apps like MeowTalk claim to help tell us more about our cat’s meows, with over 3 million downloads so far. Since each cat’s meow is unique to their relationship with their owner, the vocalizations are not compared with a central database but rather tailored to each individual cat. In other words, the app must learn what your cat’s meow means via your input.
Unfortunately, this creates a lot of space for the interpretation of different cat owners rather than standardized, accurate data. Dr. Cueves notes that “while something similar could be done in a professionally controlled context and might have some interesting results, in real life, people are forcing cats to vocalize—putting cats in abnormal situations, and even meowing themselves. The algorithm will, of course, be negatively affected by this. The real meaning of a meow is created between a cat and its owner.”
Dr. Tabitha Henson, another veterinarian from ExcitedCats, expands on this concept. “I definitely know my cat’s different meows. She has one asking for food, one when she’s excited and has caught a bug or critter, one when she’s stressed in the car (and about to vomit), and one when she sees a stray cat out of the window.
“Do apps like MeowTalk really work? Likely not,” says Dr. Henson. “Interpreting your cat’s meow in the context of the situation and their body language would be far more accurate than an app.”
Learning to Interpret Cat Communication
If cats primarily use meowing to communicate with humans, should we be worried if they’re not meowing? Dr. Cueves reassuringly says no—most of the time. “Some cats are simply quiet and that’s alright, too. On the other hand, if your cat usually meows frequently and has stopped doing so, you should make an effort to find out what is going on.”
Dr. Henson says meowing too much is not typically an issue either. “Just make sure your cat's needs are being met and have them checked out for any underlying health problems. Some cats are just chatterboxes!”
Cats certainly communicate with humans, mostly with various meows, but owners should pay close attention to body language, context, and frequency as well. Learning to communicate with your cat takes a concerted effort on your part, and with some time and dedication, it’s certainly possible to get more accurate over time.