Cat Communication: What Do All Those Different Meows Mean?

Photo: Utekhina Anna/Shutterstock.

For some reason, I have always been lucky to have very vocal cats in my life; I grew up with a small herd of Siamese, who are known to be some of the most talkative of all, but other cats I've lived with have also been quite chatty. So I loved MNN writer Laura Moss' great article about different types of cat vocalizations and what they mean.

After spending a month away from my current kitty, Penelope, while I was traveling throughout Mexico, I returned to find her very excited to see me — and meowing more than ever. As we spent some quality time re-bonding after my travels, and I got to thinking that not only do cat's other sounds (purring, yowling) have specific meanings, but there are a wide variety of types of meows as well, which generally track across the cats I've known. Of course, there are unique kitties out there who might not fit into the categories below, but same goes for humans and communication, right?

Here are some of the most common meow sounds that I have come across that are way more than just "Meow!"

I call this one the "toot" and it's the meow that got me thinking about writing this post. Since I work at my computer all day, my cat is on and off my lap pretty consistently. But she's extremely polite whenever she returns and wants my attention (and space to jump into my lap); she taps my leg with her paw several times and makes a very short meow that's even quieter and shorter than the cat in the video above — but still very similar in tone.

For anyone who has been around mom cats and kittens, you know that kittens make the most plaintive, sad-sounding mews, and mother cats are usually highly responsive to them. But the mother cats also have a meow when they are out of sight of their kittens — one that is very specific-sounding and, dare I say, has an urgent, demanding (usually high-pitched) tone that combines "Where are you?" with "Come to me right now, buster!"

I've known a few cats (including Penelope), who make this sound when they are excited to be outside exploring or in new situations they are unsure of. It's a deeper-voiced sound, and indicates nervous excitement in most cases. My cat makes it when she's hunting insects around the house or is in a new environment of some kind and it seems to be a sound made by the cat to reassure him or herself when other cats aren't around (inasmuch as it seems a calming meow to the self rather than about communication to others).

This sound is one I call the "swallowed yowl-meow" and is one I've heard from several cats, though never from my own. I'm pretty sure it's the sound of almost-too-much pleasure, since they tend to make it when you are scratching a very itchy spot, as shown in this video. It reminds me most of how it feels to scratch a really itchy spot — almost overwhelmingly good.

The "ask" is the meow that's part chirrup, part question-meow at the end. My cat makes this exact sound every single morning, even as she sees me putting her food bowl together. I usually chat back at her when I hear her "ask" sound — she also makes it sometimes when she wants my attention to open a door. It's a very distinctive meow that has to do with my doing something for her, and I don't hear it at any other time.

Of course, cats don't always need to meow to get our attention, as shown above ... my cat wakes me up by gently tapping my cheek with her paw.

Do any of your cats make these meows? Or other strange ones that seem unique or unusual?