New Study to Reveal the Meaning Behind Different Cat Meows

February 25, 2016 | Joanne Kennell


Did you know adult cats only meow to humans?

Anyone with a cat will tell you they know what their cat is saying when it meows, or in my cat Horus’ case, squeaks.  And sometimes it really feels like they can understand what we are saying to them.  Now, a new research project called Melody in Human-Cat Communication, or Meowsic, hopes to find out for certain.

The research team, who will get started during the second half of 2016, consists of three researchers, Susanne Schötz, Robert Eklund and Joost van de Weijer, from the universities of Lund and Linköping in Sweden.  They will investigate intonation (melody), voice and speaking styles of humans addressing cats, and the sounds cats make when addressing humans.

Cats are very popular pets.  In fact, they are being used more and more in therapy and as companions in retirement homes, so it is important to have a better understanding of human-cat relationships — specifically the vocal sounds used to communicate.

SEE ALSO: Cats or Dogs: One Supposedly Loves Their Humans Five Times More

Since cats were domesticated 10,000 years ago, they have learned to communicate with humans using visual and vocal signals.  However, a lot of the cats’ vocal communications are not well understood.  For example, cats vary the melody of their sounds often — possibly using patterns similar to those in human speech — but we currently do not know how to interpret these variations.

One of the goals of the project is to learn more about these variations and study whether cats react differently to various aspects of human speech, such as different voices, speaking styles and intonation patterns.

Although domestic cats’ body types don’t vary all that much, their meows can range from meek to intense, as seen in the video below.

Even though there are not a lot of cat meow experts and little research has been done on cat vocalization — hence the need for Meowsic — experts are fairly confident that the range in meows is probably due to the same factors that lead to differences in human voices: anatomy, such as body size or length of vocal cords; gender; breed; and personality.

Sounds cats make when their mouths are closed are called purring and trilling, and they are often associated with contentment.  However, the sounds they make when they feel aggressive are called hissing and shrieking.  During these noises, their mouths are usually open and they are breathing quite heavily.

Cats make their typical meow sounds by opening and closing their mouths, and those sounds can be friendly, or in many cases, demanding.  This may surprise you, but adult cats only meow to humans and not to each other, most likely because their mothers stopped responding once they were weaned off her milk.

SEE ALSO: Animal Facial Expressions, Decoded

Even though research is limited, some conclusions about cats’ voices have been made.  For example, one study of South Korean cats found that domesticated felines make shorter and higher-pitched meows than feral cats, whereas African wild cats make lower meows that humans do not find pleasant to listen to.  Nicholas Nicastro, who conducted the South Korean cat study, theorized that the sweeter sounding meows evolved over time as people selected house cats who made nicer noises.

The Meowsic study team have a lot of research experience in human language as well as animal communication, and they will collaborate with experts in veterinary medicine, zoology and linguistics during the 5-year study.

The team is confident that they will learn how people and cats talk to each other, which will lead to a better quality of life not only for the cats, but for their human companions who just want their cats to be happy, healthy and feel loved!

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