When Your Cat's Meow Deserves a Listen

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

feline vocalization

Story at-a-glance -

  • Many cats are quiet, while others are quite the opposite, as in, real chatterboxes; cats can be naturally vocal, and humans can encourage the behavior as well — either inadvertently or intentionally
  • There are several different types of feline vocalizations; it’s important to know what’s normal for your cat so you can react immediately if something sounds off
  • There are a number of conditions that can cause an increase (or in some cases, a decrease) in meowing, so a sudden or dramatic change in the frequency or loudness of your kitty’s cries should prompt a visit to your veterinarian

If you live with a chatty cat, you've probably wondered from time to time what all the noise is about. After all, you've seen to it that she wants for nothing, yet her cries seem to indicate there's more you should be doing for her. Even if her complaints aren't constant, they can be frequent enough to concern you (more about this later).

Just as some dogs are "yappy," some kitties tend to meow a lot (e.g., the Siamese). Generally speaking, if your feline family member is in good health and tends to direct her meows right at you, she probably wants something — a snack or a little scratch behind the ears, maybe.

Now, if you talk back to your cat, chances are she'll get more vocal over time. Some kitties and their humans actually have long chats. And if she scores a snack when she meows, you can expect her to amplify the behavior — especially around mealtime. Remember, if you reward your kitty when she vocalizes, she'll likely do it more.

Senior and geriatric cats also tend to vocalize more, especially at night. It's important to take note of this, as it can indicate an underlying medical or mental issue that should be addressed with your veterinarian.

The Why and How of the Meow

Cats meow to communicate with other cats as well as humans, and they have a rather impressive range of vocalizations. You can easily recognize the difference between your kitty's plaintive mealtime cry, for example, and the heart-stopping shriek he made that one time the neighbor's dog snuck into your house and chased after him.

However, many feline sounds and intonations are more subtle and don't fit a particular pattern, which can make them harder to interpret. Here's a cheat sheet for decoding some common kitty chatter:1

Vocalization How It Sounds What It Means Translation

1. Meow

The classic mee-yoww

Usually just a shout-out to whoever is around

"What's up?"

2. Purr

Similar to a low idling motor; made by contracting the muscles of the larynx

A sign of contentment in most cats; rarely, a sign of anxiety or illness

"Ear scratch feels nice … don't stop!"

3. Murmur, trill

Soft rhythmic "thump" made on exhalation

A request or greeting

"Pet me?"

4. Growl, hiss, spit

Low-pitched, severe, "I mean business" sound

Kitty is feeling fearful, stressed, defensive, or aggressive

"Back off!"

5. Shriek or screech

High-pitched, loud, harsh scream

Kitty is either in pain or about to bring the pain

"Ouch!"
"Don't touch me!" "Get away from me!"

6. Chatter

Teeth chattering; jaw vibrating

Feline hunting sound; frustration from being unable to hunt visible prey

"Let me at it… let me at it… let me at it!"

7. Howl or yowl

Loud, drawn out calls

Cognitive dysfunction in older cats; aggression; distress

"Where are you?"
"Where am I?"
"Why am I yelling?"

8. Moan

Long, low, throaty cry

Prelude to vomiting, bringing up a hairball

"Get here quick I'm about to make a mess!"

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When To Be Concerned

Since you know your furry family member better than anyone else does, it's important to learn what's normal for him when it comes to vocalizations so you can immediately detect differences that might signal an underlying problem.

Changes in your cat's vocalizations can be caused by certain medical conditions, such as laryngeal disease, high blood pressure, or hyperthyroidism. It can also mean he's experiencing a painful and potentially life-threatening problem such as a urinary tract blockage, especially if he cries out while in his litterbox.

In older cats, increased meowing can be the result of cognitive dysfunction, which is a form of dementia. If your kitty is getting up in years and also seems disoriented, he could be vocalizing due to stress or confusion.

Generally speaking, almost any feline medical condition that results in physical or mental discomfort can cause your cat to vocalize more often or abnormally. If kitty is typically fairly quiet but suddenly gets talkative, or cries when she jumps onto or off of high surfaces, or when you're holding or petting her, you should make an appointment with your veterinarian.

This is especially true if you've noticed other changes, such as a decrease or increase in appetite or sleep patterns, eliminating outside the litterbox, a change in the way she walks or sits or rests, a lack of interest in grooming, or a desire to hide away from the rest of the family.

And keep in mind that a normally talkative cat who suddenly grows quiet can also be cause for concern. If you've noticed a change in your cat's communication, don't ignore it. Ruling out any underlying medical or cognitive issues is the first step in helping your cat feel most comfortable in her body.