With ‘stealth mode’ deactivated, the more social cat personality comes to light. That once-silent kitty now stares lovingly with beady eyes, triggers tail vibrations when you waltz through the door, and whole-heartedly meows as you two chit-chat. You convince yourself that those midnight venting sessions are mutual, but why do cats meow back at you when you engage with them or talk to them?
Cats meow back at you as an attempt at human communication or mimicking your meow. Returned meows could also be a cry for attention (‘Pet me’), alert (‘The water bowl is empty’), or greeting (‘Hey’). Meowing is reserved strictly for humans, so it rarely translates into a particular message.
Those ‘conversations’ you share with Fluffy only strengthen your bond and make for sweet Snapchat stories. However, not knowing what those hearty meows mean can leave you wondering if there’s something more sinister brewing. To learn why cats meow back at you, read on.
The Reason Cats Meow Back at You
Ask your cat, ‘Are you ready for dinner?’ Or, even offer your best meow imitation. After a seconds-long staring war and some mild awkwardness, a more authentic meow will follow.
The question is: why do cats meow back at you?
In the wild (or in bustling cat colonies), silence is golden. Kittens will meow (or ‘mew’) at their mothers to beg for attention, warmth, or a nursing session, and mother cats will chirp to reel a wandering litter back to the nest. However, adults cats communicate best with scent-marking, bodily postures, and even instinctual vocalizations (i.e., hissing, growling, purring).
As kittens develop independence and near the half-year mark, meowing seemingly exits their vocabularies, and adult cats rarely ever meow at one another.
The explanation is simple: meowing means almost nothing to cats.
That’s right! Talkative cats respond to your words, questions, and meows because they think they’re speaking your language. Meanwhile, you assume that your meows are registering a particular message in that highly complex kitty language (Hint: They’re not!).
It’s a simple miscommunication that’s too adorable to bother correcting.
However, studies show that intuitive felines might understand up to 25-35 words, including their names. A meow after calling your kitty’s name, asking if she’s ready for breakfast, or even patting on the cushion beside you indicates better communication between you two.
Other Possible Meow Translations
As heartwarming as those back-and-forth conversations might be, there aren’t any hidden clues or codes worth deciphering. However, vocal kitties don’t always meow as a response; they also meow to capture your attention and make demands as they arise. All unique meows (and translations) have distinct sounds and meanings, left for you to decode as a proud cat owner.
Here’s a look at what unprovoked meows could mean and what they sound like:
A Cry for Attention
Domestic cats are stereotypically antisocial and hiss more often than they purr, but even the most high-strung kitties have a soft side and desperately crave human companionship. Add a feline’s undeniable social smarts and emotional intelligence to the mix, and a meow could mean:
- ‘Please pet me!’
- ‘Hey human, why are you ignoring me?’
- ‘Can I join you on the sofa?’
- ‘I want chin scratches!’
- ‘Wake up, and pay attention to me!’
- ‘Let’s play with the wand toy!’
Next time your cat meows at you, try scratching her favorite spot, hanging your hand down to bunt against, or whip out the toy basket for a 10-minute play bout. Dedicate at least 20 minutes a day to one-on-one attention with each of your beloved felines — or risk incessant meowing!
A Household Alert
‘Living in the moment’ may very well be your motto, but your four-legged pal prefers strict household routines and well-stocked resources. When head scratches and playtime don’t do the trick, follow your meowing cat to discover her woes:
- ‘The water bowl is empty!’
- ‘It’s dinner time, and I’m hungry!’
- ‘He/she took my bed!’
- ‘It’s time to go outside for my nightly stroll!’
- ‘I lost my mouse toy behind the refrigerator!’
These reminder and borderline-demanding meows sound normal, but when patience wears thin and you’re not heeding these requests, your cat may draw these meows out a bit longer. Stick to a routine, as relenting will only encourage these behaviors further, and possibly at night.
A Friendly Greeting
Cats have a unique love language that the non-cat community struggles to decode. A happy cat might purr, bunt, or weave between an owner’s legs as an affectionate greeting. Short (and repetitive) meows could also signal:
- ‘Welcome home!’
- ‘I missed you!’
- ‘Now, I’m happy and relaxed!’
- ‘Please don’t leave for work yet!’
- ‘It’s been a while!
These friendly, welcoming meows are much easier to detect than other translations. Watch your cat’s body language for slow blinks, rubbing against you, a relaxed posture, and a vertical tail. While nearly tripping over Fluffy isn’t fun, these welcoming committees are undoubtedly cute.
A Call for Help
Living in a home (instead of in the wild) leaves your cat almost entirely dependent on you for her next meal, a controlled thermostat, and a comfy bed. Even in a 1,000 sq. ft. (93 sq. m.) apartment, your cat’s curiosity gets her into trouble. More panicked-sounding meows could be a cry for help:
- ‘Help! I’m locked in the bathroom!’
- ‘Please let me inside; it’s raining!’
- ‘I can’t get down from this cat tree!’
- ‘There’s another cat out here! Rescue me!’
- ‘Hey, you stepped on my tail!’
These long, drawn-out meows are a cat’s way of calling for comfort and rescue in times of need. Sometimes, it seems like cats have selective memories. They surely remember the horrors of vacuums but conveniently ‘forget’ that they can’t open the screen door without begging.
What Your Cat’s Other Vocalizations Could Mean
The meow is the most easily-decipherable kitty feline vocalization (in the sense that it’s typically friendly). However, cats emit other sounds while hunting, cuddling, greeting, or frustrated. Some of the most common feline vocalizations, aside from meowing, include:
- Trilling: This pigeon-like cooing sounds like a meow/purr combination. Mother cats trill at their litters to say, ‘Follow me,’ and adult cats trill to express contentedness.
- Yowling: This drawn-out meow might sound like a cat in unbearable pain. However, yowls are more often an attention-grabber, boredom cry, or mating call (for unfixed felines).
- Chattering: This bizarre teeth-clattering noise might sound vaguely like your kitty’s chuckling, though cats chatter while bird hunting to lure them closer before pouncing.
- Hissing: This downright terrifying vocalization sounds eerily similar to a snake’s hiss, loosely translating to, ‘Go away’ or ‘Stop petting me!’
It’s worth noting that these feline sounds are more instinctual than communicative. A terrified cat will hiss (or even growl), and a backyard squirrel will yield second-long chatters. Meows, on the other hand, are purely based upon the complicated feline-human relationship.
Do you want to decipher what your kitty’s saying when she answers you? The video below overviews seven distinct feline vocalizations (and what they could mean):
It’s disappointing to learn that those swoon-worthy meows don’t translate to, ‘How was your day?’ Think of these meows as being ‘knighted’ into your kitty’s pack. Now, you might be wondering, ‘What if my cat doesn’t make any sounds at all? Does that mean she doesn’t like me?’ Not exactly, because:
- Certain breeds (i.e., Persian, Ragdoll, and Pixiebob) are historically quiet.
- Former colony or stray cats with limited human interaction may never learn to meow.
- Some cats are quieter than others — it’s nothing personal!
- Cats express themselves better physically (i.e., bunting, purring, and vibrating tails.
- Purina: Silent & Quiet Cat Breeds
- The Humane Society of the United States: Understanding feline language
- ASPCA: Meowing and Yowling
- NPR: Cats Might Not Act Like It, But They Know Their Names As Well As Dogs, Study Says
- Science Mag: Cats rival dogs on many tests of social smarts. But is anyone brave enough to study them?
- Psychology Today: How Cats Show Us Affection