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 carefully 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 for attention. The cat is either saying hello or asking for something. If a cat returns a meow from a human, it is responding in kind. Cats love to imitate owners, so they will use the same methods of communication. This is a form of conversation for the cat. It will soon grow dull though, as cats do not communicate with each other this way.

Meowing is no substitute for traditional, human words and commands. The cat will not fully comprehend your meaning. Used sparingly, you can engage in short meow-based conversations with a cat.

Why Do Cats Meow?

Meowing is a unique communication style, developed by domesticated cats to manipulate humans. As per The Journal of Comparative Psychology, the meow of a wild cat is incomparable to that of a house cat. Understanding why cats’ meow is the first step of knowing why they meow back at you.

When a cat meows at an owner, it wants attention. This does not necessarily mean that the cat is distressed, though 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, please”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, traditional 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 are late with dinner or playtime”A low, baritone meow that almost sounds like the cat is grumbling. You’ll hear this is you are late with dinner.
“Ouch!”A short, shrill, ear-piercing meow. Hope not to hear this. It means your cat is in pain. Did you step on its tail?

It is believed that cats have mastered around 17 different meow sounds. They are all variations on this core sextet of translations.

do cats only meow at humans and not other cats?

Should I Meow at My Cat?

This depends on how what you are trying to achieve. 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 amused by your attempts to communicate.

In addition, cats are born imitators. Your cat will return a meow because it is replicating a noise that you 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?

To an extent, cats understand human meows. Your cat will certainly understand that you are communicating with it. We must remember though, cats do not communicate with each other this way. As a result, your cat in 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 trying to understand your meaning.

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.

Always consider the impact a meow will have on your cat. A quick meow to say hello is one thing. An elongated meow associated with hunger is another. The cat will wonder what you want it to do about this. Will it ignore you, or bring you a dead mouse for nourishment?

If you’re keen to avoid the latter scenario, do not push your luck with meows. Equally, consider whether you are upsetting your cat. It may grow anxious if you claim to be hungry. After all, you provide food in this dynamic. The returned meow may be born of stress.

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, and eventually ignore it.

The one 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. You may notice particular 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

Unless you are a gifted impressionist, you are unlikely to perfectly imitate a mother cat’s meow. Your cat will understand your intention though. The meow is just the start. 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 though, leave meowing for fun.

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 do. If you want to gain your cat’s attention, just speak to it.

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. Most cats only understand around 30 human words.

You may use these words amidst your conversation, though. This will garner a meowing response. Ask your partner what they’d like for dinner and your cat will simply 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.

If your cat does meow at you while you speak, acknowledge it. You can decide whether to do so via a meow, human words, or physical attention. Make the cat feel heard as this will strengthen your bond.

do cats understand human meows?

My Cat Doesn’t Meow Back at Me

Not all cats will return meows from humans. This is especially prevalent in 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 has potentially forgotten how to interact with humans. You can encourage that cat to meow back. Just leave gaps between the sounds, as you would in human conversation.

Some cats are also quiet by nature. This may be down to breed. Some breeds, especially Siamese cats, are highly chatty. Others prefer to be silent, speaking when spoken to – and sometimes not even then.

If your cat is not prone to meowing back, stick to words and commands. These are clearly what the feline is hardwired to respond to. You’ll enjoy an easier relationship based on mutual communication this way.

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 in 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 will boost your bond. The cat will feel you are making an effort, which is always welcome. Just avoid spending hours meowing back and forth. The cat will eventually want action, not words.