Cats meow. It's one of defining behavior of domestic house cats. Kittens meow for their mothers when they're hungry, cold or scared. Adult cats can communicate with other cats through myriad vocalizations, but meowing is reserved for humans. If your cat is meowing, he wants your attention.
The Cat's Meow
All cats, from domestic pets to wild cats, can vocalize with their larynx, or voice box. Meows are limited to the exhale of breadth, unlike purrs, which involve the entire respiratory cycle. In most meows, cats use a vowel pattern -- that is, they begin the sound with their mouth open and slowly close it.
Some behaviorists believe cats can manipulate their meows to meet different ends, lending credence to the anthropomorphism championed by many pet owners.
Gab Flies from Gadflies
As kittens, cats meow for the same reason as human babies: they're hungry, cold or scared, and they want their mothers to do something about it. As cats mature, they develop a more nuanced vocabulary to communicate with each other -- chirping, yowling, hissing and growling are common examples. They mew and mutter at each other, but the archetypical meow is almost always reserved for people.
Some cats seem to meow just to hear their own voices, while others seem to be trying to carry on an exchange with their owners. The majority, though, are simply trying to tell you to pay attention.
Cat Calls and Caterwauls
If your cat is meowing, it's up to you to figure out why. Meowing means "pay attention to me." Broadly speaking, cats meow to let you know they're sick, want want some playtime or petting time, they're hungry, they're lonely or they're stressed. They also meow to say hello, or in protest when you leave.
Cats who live indoors and outdoors may meow to get you to open a door. If your cat isn't spayed or neutered, meows may come alongside some yowls and other catty signals. As they age, some cats suffer cognitive dysfunction and confusion, just like people with Alzheimer's disease. These older cats sometimes meow for no apparent reason, especially at night.
Learning the Lingo
If you pay attention to what appeases your meowing cat, you'll quickly tune in to the nuance of their meows. The speed of your response reinforces particular inflections or dissuades them from future use. The context and sounds that surround a meow also offer clues. A soft purr that leads to a meow is often a pleading gesture -- as in "stop that" or "keep doing that." An acute or plaintive meow may be an indication that something's seriously wrong with your cat. If everything else appears normal and your cat continues this kind of meowing, schedule a veterinary appointment.
Enough is Enough, or Maybe Not
Some cats meow more than others, partly because of genetics, partly because of socialization. Some breeds, like Siamese, are well-known as "talkers." Others, like Maine coons, are known for their distinct low, loud meows. The Cat Fanciers' Association maintains 42 breed descriptions that includes related information.
Even if you enjoy your cat's meowing, your patience for attention-seeking whining may wane. Never discipline a cat for meowing -- it breeds contempt and probably won't work anyway -- but don't reward him, either. When your cat's meowing a lot, check if there's a problem, then ignore him. It'll get worse before it gets better but, like the cat on the laundry line in that famous motivational poster, you've got to hang in there.
- cat image by Dwight Davis from Fotolia.com