Why Cats Meow

Ransom Riggs

Cat owners will tell you they can detect the difference between a contented meow and an annoyed meow, a scared meow and a playful meow, and so on. This is, perhaps, by design -- cats, as it turns out, rarely meow to one another. Most often their meows are directed at their owners, and slight modulations can carry different meanings.

For instance, when I've been away for a few days, my cat starts in with the Hey, quit leaving, I missed you meows, which are clipped and rapid, and come out in a long stream that can last, maddeningly, for hours. (I appreciate the sentiment, cat -- but shut up!) According to the ASPCA, these are other common meows:

The what's up meow, which depending on your cat's mood you can expect when you walk into a room, encounter the cat in the yard, or speak to your cat. I can attest to that last one: my cat's pretty talkative, and you can have entire back-and-forth "conversations" with her, with me saying only her name. It's cute, if not terribly enlightening.

The play with me meow. "Cats enjoy social contact with people, and some will be quite vocal in their requests for attention."

To ask for food. "Most cats like to eat," the ASPCA helpfully points out, "and they can be quite demanding around mealtimes. Some cats learn to meow whenever anyone enters the kitchen, just in case food might be forthcoming."

Let me in / out. My cat hates-hates-HATES closed doors of any kind, which makes life a little difficult when, say, I'm trying to sleep in one room and my wife is watching TV in the next room; kitty goes nuts if I close the door. Damn cat.

The senile meow. "Elderly cats suffering from mental confusion, or cognitive dysfunction, may meow if they become disoriented—a frequent symptom of this feline version of Alzheimer’s Disease."

• The one major exception to the "cats don't meow to one another very often" rule seems to be when they're looking for mates, in which case they start yowling like nobody's business.

Of course, there are many shades of meaning when it comes to feline vocalization -- cat owners, what are some of the things your cat tries to communicate? Anything weirdly specific or funny?