Katz Tales: Cats don’t meow at each other, only at humans

  • Animals
  • Monday, 12 Feb 2018

A cat reacting during the World Golden Cat international exhibition in Minsk, Belarus, on Feb 4. There are apparently five distinct cat meows for different occasions. Photo: Reuters

On Friday, I got out of the taxi and found a lady talking to the handsome Russian blue lookalike cat who lives in the same street as our local pub. She was stroking him, and he was bouncing up and down on his paws, shouting, “MeowrrrrawOW!” at the top of his lungs.

“Isn’t he sweet?” she said to me. “It’s just like he’s talking.”

Then the cat clocked me and came dashing over, yelling, “MeowrrrrawOW!” Unlike his admirer, I understood the frantic message. “Give me one second,” I said to him, “and I’ll get you some.”

You see, we were standing outside the shop where the pet food lives. Our grey-furred friend was speaking, and he was saying, “Lady, I’m starving! For Bastet’s (Egyptian goddess of cats) sake, go in there and get me some tuna!” And because the lady didn’t understand, my furry friend had moved from asking nicely to yelling with frustration.

It’s a curious thing, but cats only meow when they talk to people. Studies show that feral cats who live away from humans don’t meow. And in the cat family in general, researchers note that only the European wildcat, African wildcat, caracal and South American margay make that sound.

The meow, therefore, has been developed by domestic cats solely to communicate with us human people. Yes, our pets have invented a language, just for us!

The pub kitty enjoying some tuna, a reward after he had meowed his lungs out.

Researchers argue over how many types of meow there are, but one that analysed 535 such sounds made by American cats suggested that particular sound comes in five distinct flavours, including one that is used to talk about food.

That interested me because in our house, we don’t have a single meow for food. Our three cats talk about their favourite subject in very different ways.

When Target wants food, he tends to go for body language. He headbutts me on the ankle, sticks his tail up in the air, and marches purposefully to the kitchen. If the scientific literature is right, he’s not meowing because he treats me like a cat. He trusts me to get the message without the meow.

Target does meow for food, but mostly when I’m upstairs in the office, and he’s at the bottom of the stairs. In other words, when he’s being a lazy fluff, he’ll save himself the walk. For this, he affects a long yodelling kind of meow, aimed at long-distance communication.

Swooner is still a kitten and has a terrible relationship with food. Because he was on the streets and rail thin, almost starving to death, poor boy, he has an uncontrollable appetite. If he sees food, he screams meow. It’s piercing, as if it’s an emergency.

It’s Guido, though, who has the most sophisticated approach. Last night, I was woken up around 2am by a low voiced, “Meow?” that was the purrfect cat whisper.

Target and Guido waiting patiently for lunch. Each of them has their own way of asking for food. Photo: ELLEN WHYTE

When I opened my eyes, Guido was sitting next to me, head dipped towards mine, and then he stuck his whiskers in my ear and breathed, “Mraw” again.

I got up in perfect silence, and we went downstairs to look at the cat biscuit bowls. They were empty, of course, because Swooner doesn’t do leftovers. So I gave Guido some crunchies, and a second later Target showed up.

My pet had bed fur because in his haste to see what we were doing, he hadn’t had time to smooth it down. Seeing the biscuits, he squeaked with pleasure. If there’s a meow that says, “Ooooh, midnight feast!”, that was it.

I left the two boys crunching happily and went back to bed where Swooner was totally unconscious. Our meows had been so quiet, that he hadn’t heard them.

The thing about Guido is that he very rarely meows for his food. This morning at breakfast, he reverted to his normal behaviour. He walked in, sat down at the edge of the rug with his paws neatly together, and waited patiently.

That’s how Guido asks for his food; it’s where and how he sits. OK, there is an air of expectancy about him, but basically he has trained us to wait on him when he sits at the invisible cat table. You just need to look at him to know he’s tucking a napkin in his collar and saying, “Yum, bring on the first course.”

Being thoroughly evil, I have pretended not to understand. But when I ask innocently, “What do you want, Guido?” he responds with a single low meow. It’s a quiet sound but one that says very firmly, “Stop messing about as if I’m some silly dog. Paw over lunch.”

So we’re individualistic when it comes to ordinary meals. However, when it comes to treats, it’s a different story. When Tom goes to the kitchen and starts bringing out the pans to cook their Saturday lunch of chicken liver, there’s instant bristling whiskers and alert ears.

Swooner will go bounding in and within seconds he’s squealing, “MEOW!” at the top of his lungs. Target becomes so infected with his enthusiasm that he meows, too. Their excited calls alert Guido who will come strolling in. And although he affects monumental cool, he has been known to add his voice to the chorus.

In our house, food is always available so perhaps that is why Target and Guido can be relaxed about asking for it. Hopefully Swooner will one day learn too. But for the grey kitty by the pub, the situation is more desperate.

I do wish that people neutered their pets so we’d have no stressed cats living rough. However, one thing cheers me up is that the ladies above and next door to the pub hand out biscuits. Also, the kitty isn’t shy about importuning strangers.

A few weeks ago, one of the other pub regulars confided that he’d been hit up by the grey cat when he was entering the shop. “It was unmistakable,” he said to me. “That cat was saying, ‘While you’re in there, get me some food’.”

And he did. A whole packet of tuna for cats. Proof that human nature can be sweet.

Time for a snooze, after Guido has wolfed down a big lunch. Photo: ELLEN WHYTE

Do cats meow sweetly for our ears only?

Cats make a range of sounds that include chirps, hisses, trills, chirrups, yowls, snarls and more. The meow is simply one of those sounds, and even then researchers argue over how many types of meow there are, and what they mean.

In one interesting study by Cornell University, researchers recorded 535 meows from 12 adult cats (seven females and five males). When they analysed their recordings, results suggested that meows come in five distinct flavours.

They found a special meow that was reserved for talking about food, one that was pure fighting talk, one for sweet talk, one for pointing out obstacles like shut doors, and one distress call reserved for trips to the vet and other horrors.

People listening to isolated cat meows were asked to say what the cat was talking about. The more they knew cats, the more they got the message right.

In a follow-up study, researchers tried to see if domestic cats were using sweet-sounding meows compared to the rough and tough meows of the African wildcat.

Results suggested that our pet cats sound nicer to the human ear than the wildcats.

As such, it is possible that cats have adapted over time to meow nicely, purely as a result of living cheek-to-whisker with us. And because they communicate a lot with us, pet cats have become quite sophisticated in their language.

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