Most cat owners have experienced picking up a cat only to have it meow at us. A minute earlier, the cat looked like it wanted our attention, but now what does it want? Did you hurt the cat or is it telling you something else?
Cats meow when you pick them up to communicate. It could be they don’t want to be picked up at that moment, are not feeling good, want to be left alone, or are mad. A cat can also meow as a way to greet you. As you get to know a cat, you will better understand what she is saying.
People who don’t own cats have an idea that cats are standoffish animals, but cats communicate with us, but we have to take the time to understand their language. When a cat meows as you pick it up, she is usually trying to tell you one of seven things. Let’s explore what those are.
Reasons Why Cats Meow
Cats have among the greatest number of vocal sounds of domesticated animals, so understanding why your cat is meowing can be frustrating. This is even more true the cat is new to you.
Knowing why cats meow is one step to understanding what one is telling you.
Just like we do, cats need attention, and their meow is an attempt to get it. So what could your cat want?
- A cat’s most essential need is food, but you prevented a trip to the food bowl by picking her up. If the food bowl isn’t empty, maybe she wanted something else.
- Cats also need attention, to feel content, to avoid danger, and to be free of pain and fear. Cats that have not been spayed or neutered will feel the need to reproduce. And sometimes a cat simply wants to say hello.
Their needs are universal, but their language is not, and this often adds to the difficulty of determining exactly what your cat wants. So let’s explore common cat sounds and what your cat might be trying to communicate.
Interestingly, feral cats are much quieter than domestic ones. Felinologists (cat scientists) suspect they remain quieter to not call attention to themselves in the wild.
Kinds of Meows
A cat’s first meow is to its mother, but as it grows older, a cat develops other kinds of meows, which are attempts to communicate with humans. Adult domestic cats rarely meow unless a human is nearby, so if a cat is being very vocal, it is trying to tell you something.
It is up to us to figure out what a cat is trying to tell us. So if your cat meows when you pick it up, it could be sending one of several messages.
I Didn’t Want To Be Picked Up
Just because a cat comes wandering to you doesn’t mean it wants to be picked up.
Cats have other ways of showing they want attention or affection. A cat that rubs its head against you wants to show attention, and mark you as belonging to it, but maybe all it wanted was an acknowledgment.
After all, reaching out to shake hands doesn’t always mean we want a hug.
I’m Not Feeling Good
A cat’s instinct is to hide pain or injury. In the wild, cats don’t want other animals to know they are injured, so they often hide their discomfort. If that is the case, your cat’s meow could be translated into a feline version of “Didn’t you notice I wasn’t feeling good?”
If the meow is more urgent or unpleasant than your cat’s typical meow, illness might be a cause. And if the behavior continues, then it might be best to call your vet.
Other signs your cat is not feeling good:
- Posture: A cat in pain will not be relaxed and playfully rolling around. Instead, it will sit hunched over, with tense muscles, and not want to be touched. If that is the case, you might get a hiss, not a meow.
- Expression: If you know your cat well, you might notice subtle changes in their eyes. For example, they could be partially closed or the pupils dilated. If the eyes look different and the cat appears to be “zoning out,” she might be in pain.
- Hiding: If it seems like the cat is spending more time hiding, it could be a sign of pain. This is also an instinctive survival behavior. This type of hiding would be different than darting behind the couch if a stranger shows up.
I’m Saying Hello
Humans have different ways of saying hello, and cats are the same. If a cat woke up from a nap, and you picked it up, then the meow might be a greeting. If she often greets you with a meow, when you pick her up, and you hear the welcoming meow, then she’s saying, “Glad you’re back.”
I Want To Be Left Alone
Your cat could have been wandering your way, but not because it wanted your company. Instead, you stood in between where she was and where she wanted to be. If that’s the case, she’s meowing because she wants to go back down and continue on her merry way.
If your cat is twisting around to get back to where she wants to be headed, put her down.
Everyone has a bad day, including cats. Your cat might have been upset about something, and she wanted to be left alone, not picked up. There will be other signs that she is angry—if she pulls her ears back, begins twitching her tail, and hissing, put her down.
I’ve Told You Before—I Don’t Like Being Picked Up
Sorry to say it, but you might have a cat that doesn’t enjoy being picked up. Sometimes we want to hold a cat for comfort, but if a cat doesn’t like being picked up, it will meow and struggle to get down. It might even snap at you if you don’t let it down.
You can find other ways to get comfort from a cat. Wait for her to settle in, move closer, pet her, and wait for the purring to start.
I Don’t Like How You Pick Me Up
Some cats will meow because they don’t like the way you pick them up.
Cats use smell to identify people and objects, so introduce yourself. Put your hand close to her face and let her get a whiff.
They spook easily, so make your cat feel supported. If your cat is skittish, put one hand under the chest and the other under the tummy when lifting her. Once you have her up, squish her close to your body so she feels supported. A secure cat is less likely to meow and more likely to purr.
Here’s a video on how you should pick up a cat like a pro;
Translating Cat Sounds
To help cat owners understand what their cats are saying, Javier Sanchez has developed an app that can reportedly translate a cat’s meow into human language. He hopes that this app can help people bond better with their pets.
The app works by attempting to categorize a meow into one of the ten intentions common to all cats. Although each cat has its unique meow vocabulary, they will consistently use the same meow when they want something.
Once users know what a meow means, they will label it. Then, when the app hears the meow, it will alert the owner what their cat needs.
The app, Meow Talk, is available on both Apple and Android devices.
Cats have universal needs, but they don’t all speak the same language. A meow can mean I’m hungry, I’m bored, I’m happy, or I’m mad. The way you learn what a cat is saying when she meows is to get to know her. And the way to get to do that is to interact with your cat.
- Treehugger: Cat Sounds and What They Mean
- VetHelpDirect: How Do You if a Cat is in Pain?
- Paws Chicago: How Felines Perceive the World
- ASPCA: Meowing and Yowling
- The Humane Society of the United States: The Cat’s Meow
- Journal of Veterinary Science: Feline Vocal Communication
- MDPI: Only When It Feels Good: Specific Cat Vocalizations Other Than Meowing
- Geek Wire: Meow Talk, an App That Translates Cat Sounds, Is a Pet Project For This Former Alexa Engineer
Pam is a self-confessed cat lover and has experience of working with cats and owning cats for as long as she can remember. This website is where she gets to share her knowledge and interact with other cat lovers.