why do cats meow at humans?
Questions About Cats

Why Do Cats Meow Back When You Talk To Them?

Meowing is a sound that’s unique to cats. Felines have developed and engineered their meow to communicate with humans. This means that if you meow at your cat, it is likely to meow back at you.

Cats meow at humans to greet you or ask for something, such as food or to be let outside. If a cat returns a meow from a human, it is responding in kind. Cats love to imitate their owners, so they will talk the same way. Meowing may be a means of communication, but cats do not communicate with other cats in this way.

Meowing is not a substitute for traditional human words and commands. The cat will not fully comprehend the meaning of what you’re saying any more than you can precisely understand what the cat is trying to say to you. However, used sparingly, you can engage in short meow-based ‘conversations’ with cats.

Why Do Cats Meow?

Meowing is a unique communicative style developed by domesticated cats to get what they want from humans. As per The Journal of Comparative Psychology, the meow of a wild cat is incomparable to a house cat. Understanding why cats meow is the first step to finding out why cats meow back at you.

When a cat meows at an owner, it wants attention from you. This does not necessarily mean that the cat is distressed, although that’s always possible. The cat certainly wants something from you, though. This table summarizes the meaning behind common meow sounds:

“Hello, it’s nice to see you”A short, sharp chirp or chirrup, often repeated.
“I’d like your attention”A comparatively short traditional meow. This could be the cat just saying hello. It’s likelier to be a request for food or petting, though.
“I am very excited”A series of short meows. Your cat is looking forward to a treat, meal, or playtime.
“I want something specific, and I want it now”An elongated, increasingly loud, and agitated meow. You will hear this if your cat wants to play or go outside.
“You’re late with dinner or playtime”A low, baritone meow that almost sounds like the cat is grumbling. You’ll hear this if you are late with dinner.
“Ouch”A short, shrill, ear-piercing meow. It means your cat is in pain.

Cats have mastered around 17 different meow sounds. They are all variations on this core sextet of translations.

Should I Meow At My Cat?

If you want to hear your cat’s meow, by all means, do so. Your cat will likely meow back at you. This is because the cat welcomes your efforts. It will feel listened to and enjoy your attempts to communicate.

Also, cats are born imitators. Your cat will return a meow because it is replicating a noise that you have made. The feline meow is believed to have originated as a response to a human infant’s cry. Cats learned that this sound gained immediate attention.

Eventually, the novelty of meows will subside. The cat is not meowing at you because it wants to chat. It wants to be fed, groomed, petted, or played with. If these needs remain unmet, your cat will grow impatient. Verbal communication will change or cease entirely.

Do Cats Understand Human Meows?

Your cat will certainly understand that you are communicating with it. We must remember that cats do not communicate with each other this way. As a result, your cat is unlikely to enter into a prolonged dialog.

You can tell whether a cat understands your meowing by observing its reaction. If the cat flees and hides, you frightened it. If the cat approaches you, it took your meow as a plea for attention. If the cat cocks its head and stares, it is attempting to understand the meaning of what you’re saying.

The ideal scenario is a cat returning your meow in a pitch-perfect imitation. Try this with a short meow to say, “hello.” If your cat does the same, look at its tail. If it points upward or curves into a question mark, the cat is cheerfully returning your greeting.

do cats only meow at humans and not other cats?

Replacing Words And Commands with Meows

It is inadvisable to replace traditional commands with meows. As discussed, cats do not communicate with each other this way. Your cat holds you in the same esteem as a fellow feline. Your cat will be baffled by this communication style and will eventually completely ignore it.

The exception to cats not meowing at each other is mothers and kittens. Inter-cat generations communicate using meows and similar sounds. This memory may be retained into adulthood. Used sparingly, a meow can be a useful communication tool with your cat.

If your female cat has birthed kittens, listen closely to how she communicates with her litter. You may notice certain verbalizations that can be adopted and imitated. Examples could include:

  • A short, shrill meow to announce arrival or presence
  • Louder, traditional meows to announce dinner time
  • Chirps or trills to say, “follow me, I have something for you”
  • Low growls or deep meows to deter unwanted behavior
  • Short, sharp loud meows to warn of an impending danger

You are unlikely to be able to imitate a mother cat’s meow perfectly. Your cat will understand your intention, though. The remainder of the comprehension is based on facial expression, tone, and body language.

This means that you can use meows on occasion. A cat approaching a hot stove, for example, may change direction with a loud meow. Equally, a low growl is preferable to losing your temper and scolding bad behavior. Overall, meowing at a cat should just be considered to be a source of amusement.

My Cat Meows When I Talk

You do not need to meow at a cat to gain a verbal response. Oftentimes, a traditional conversation will suffice. If you want to gain your cat’s attention, speak to it clearly.

As Animal Cognition explains, cats recognize voices as belonging to their owners. This will be enough to pique a cat’s curiosity. It may come to find you upon hearing you speak. Alas, the cat cannot complete a conversation as most only understand around 30 human words.

You may use these words amidst your conversation to garner a meowing response. Ask your partner what they’d like for dinner, and your cat will hear, “dinner.” The cat will then start meowing as though to request feeding.

It may not even be a direct word but something that sounds like a command. Asking, “has the cat been fed?” may filter through the feline brain as, “cat, bed.” The cat may then meow indignantly. It is not ready to sleep as it is yet to enjoy playtime and attention.

do cats understand human meows?

My Cat Doesn’t Meow Back at Me

Not all cats will return meows from humans, especially senior cats who have outgrown playful behaviors. A quiet, older feline is usually a good sign. It suggests that the cat is physically comfortable and secure in your relationship.

If you have adopted a long-term stray, it may also fail to meow back. The cat may have forgotten how to interact with humans. You can encourage that cat to meow back by leaving gaps between the sounds, just as you would in a normal human conversation.

Some cats are also quiet by nature due to their breed. Some breeds, especially Siamese cats, are highly chatty. Others prefer to be quieter, speaking when spoken to, and sometimes not even then.

If your cat is not one for meowing back, you should use words and commands. These are clearly what the feline is hardwired to respond to. Only grow concerned if a vocal cat suddenly stops meowing. If the cat meows unprompted but doesn’t respond to you, that’s fine. It just no longer sees the benefit of doing so. A cat that stops meowing altogether may have a sore throat or damaged larynx, though.

Cats returning human meows is a common occurrence. A little interaction in a feline’s native language may improve your bond. Just avoid spending hours meowing back and forth. The cat will eventually want action, not words.