Cat's Meow

Cat's Meow Photo Credit: Rudi Riet

A listener asks about the meaning of meows.


The story behind the cat's meow. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Today's question comes from cat aficionado Jodi Carston of Anchorage, Alaska.

"Why do cats meow and purr?"

We asked Katharine Houpt, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cornell University. She says that cats have many meows, and many reasons for meowing them.

"The one we're most familiar with is the demand meow, which means "I want to be fed" or "I want to go out" or "Pay attention." There are also meows that are pleading, which can often start with a soft purr, a purr-meow. And then there's caterwauling which is usually an aggressive call between two male cats."

She says there's also a hunting meow and a kind of trilling meow mother cats use with their kittens. So meows are a versatile form of communication. Purring, on the other hand, is simply a sign of comfort. Dr. Houpt says that unlike meowing or human speech, purring isn't the result of air passing over the vocal cords. It's a vibration of the larynx that resonates down to the windpipe and into the diaphragm. Kittens use it to communicate quietly with their mothers while they're nursing.

"And that's probably why it continues to be a behavior that they show when they are comfortable."

If you've got a science question, call us at 1-800-WHY-ISIT. If we use it on the show you'll get a purr-fect Science Update mug. For the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I'm Bob Hirshon.

Making Sense of the Research

Cats have led a paradoxical existence, from being treated like gods to being associated with witchcraft. Much of this ambivalence toward cats is probably because they remain enigmas. Although cats are often friendly and warm to people, they still behave as though their independence were total. They are mysteries to us and one of the qualities that adds to their mystique is the meow. Scientists have long speculated on the meanings of both the cats' meows and purrs. Meows are rarely heard during cat-cat interactions and it is believed to be a learned response, based on its effectiveness in getting human attention. The purr, on the other hand, is something cats are able to do from birth when they purr primarily while suckling. Purring is used in a wide variety of circumstances, not just when a cat is happy. For instance, veterinarians have noticed that some cats purr continuously when they are chronically ill or appear to be in severe pain. It is thought that they do so as a way to solicit care from humans.

This Science Update focuses on the cat's meow and how it is used to communicate its needs and wants. As such, it provides a good basis for beginning a discussion about not only verbal communication, but the other ways in which living things communicate—such as through smell, sight, and touch. Cats could once again be good examples of these other methods, but it would probably be interesting to look at how other animals communicate with one another as well.

Now try to answer the following questions:

  1. What's the difference between purring and meowing?
  2. What different messages do cats communicate through meowing?
  3. Can you think of other things cats might try to communicate through meowing?
  4. What message does a cat's purr send?
  5. How does a cat produce the purring sound?
  6. Can you think of other ways in which a cat communicates with people or other cats? For instance, do cats use body language to communicate information? How?
  7. A cat's meow is used to communicate needs and wants to humans. Do you think cats use these same sounds to communicate with one another? Do you think alley cats, who have little or no interaction with humans, communicate in the same way as house cats?
  8. How about dogs? What sounds or motions do dogs make? Why?

For Educators

Visit the Guide to Your Cat , from the Discovery site, for everything you've ever wanted to know about cats.

For more information on animal communication, visit the Animal Information Database from Sea World/Busch Gardens. Each animal resource page includes a section on communication. The database also includes an Animal Sounds Library.

Another good source of information about animal communication is the Neuroscience for Kids' page called The Brain and Language.

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