Tuesday, March 6, 2012
Our cat has a very specific language and I know what he is ‘saying’ almost every time he meows. My husband marvels at how well I interpret our cat’s sounds, but it seems natural to me. I spend a lot of time with the little guy and tend to his needs. We understand each other. Moreover, he’s extremely communicative.
Jack, a neighbor’s cat, and our cat are best friends. They hang out on front porches and patrol the neighborhood together most of the day. If our cat is out and Jack isn’t, he’ll go to Jack’s door as if to say “can Jack come out and play?” and vice-versa. Their interactions provide entertainment for the whole neighborhood; everybody tells “Jack and Jet” stories. In total, I’ve probably watched these cats for more hours than I care to admit. One thing that stands out to me is that these two never meow to each other. All of their communications –of which there are many– are primarily inaudible. This observation got me thinking about how well my cat communicates with me through meows and why I never hear him and his buddy meow to each other.
In researching this, I learned that cats only meow to people, not to other cats. Cats communicate with one another through scent, facial expressions, body language and physical touch. Think about it. You’ve probably heard a cat caterwauling for mating, hissing to scare off intruders, screeching when he’s hurt or fearful, or chattering when he identifies prey, but I bet you’ve never heard a cat meow to another cat. They save that for humans.
According to Cornell News, only a mother cat and her young kittens meow to one another. A kitten mews to get attention from her mother cat and once the kitten is grown, they stop. This begs the question, why do cats meow to people? Cornell University did an evolutionary psychology study and determined that cats meow to people because it works. Cats have figured out how to get what they want from humans.
Since we evidently don’t understand the scent-messages the cat leaves us, and most of us are not entirely fluent in cat body language, cats have to resort to some manner by which to communicate with their humans. Because our cats are dependent on us in every way, they have to meow to get what they want. So cats are bilingual – they speak cat language to one another and they’ve developed a second meow-language to communicate with humans. Brilliant!
Even more brilliant is the way cats use a variety of meowing methods to communicate different things; their meows vary in volume, pitch and length according to what they want. Our cat uses a short, high-pitched meow as a general greeting. When he strings a few of those greeting meows together, he’s letting me know he’s happy to see me.
Cats use pleasing meow sounds when they want food or attention. In fact, the Cornell study claims that cats learn which meow is going to get the results they want and act accordingly. Pay attention to this. If your cat has a meow that you cannot resist, it’s likely that meow is a solicitation for something that delights him such as climbing on your lap and getting scratched behind his ears.
When you hear harsher, louder meows it’s usually because your cat is reprimanding you or expressing annoyance. These meows have an unpleasant, low pitch and there’s nothing cute about them. Cats have learned not to use disagreeable meows to seek a favor because most cat people are unlikely to abide by such rudeness.
The cat-to-human language varies per cat. Even though there is a specific “demand meow” sound, your cat may distinguish between his regular demands and you may be able to differentiate between the sounds. For example, your kitty may have one meow for “give me my FELIDAE cat food now!” and another for “please let me out.”
The more time you spend with your cat (or cats in general) the easier it is for you to understand cat-to-human language. Studies indicate that the more experience people have with cats, the better they are at understanding meows.
It’s nice to think your cat is smart enough and resourceful enough to learn a second language. And it’s especially heartwarming to think your cat has learned a special language to communicate with you. Of course, he learned the language out of necessity but also out of fondness. Your cat wouldn’t bother meowing a greeting or meowing for your attention if he didn’t enjoy the special connection the two of you have.
Photo by Joel Duggan
Read more articles by Langley Cornwell