Why do cats meow? How to understand what your cat's trying to tell you

Written by Napo HQ
29th May 2022
7 mins read
Summary
Most of us think purring means a happy cat, and that hissing is a sign of aggression, but it turns out that’s not strictly true. Meows and yowls might mean your cat wants something. Purring can be a sign of contentment or that your cat’s been stressed. Hissing is actually your cat saying they feel threatened. And chirping or chirruping can mean your cat’s excited, happy to see you, or in hunting mode.
Although you can’t speak cat, it’s possible to be able to understand what all the weird and wonderful noises your cat makes mean. So if you’ve ever wondered “why do cats meow?” or “what does a cat purr mean?” here’s everything you need to know to understand what your cat’s been trying to tell you.
From meows and yowls to chirrups and purrs, we take a look at 5 of the most common noises your cat makes and what they’re trying to say with those sounds.

Why do cats meow?

As you might expect, cats meow as a way of talking to us.
Cats rarely meow at other adult cats, it’s usually a way that kittens will communicate with their mothers. It’s how they tell their mums they need something, like food, or grooming.
However, cats will meow at people. This could potentially be because they see us as caregivers, like their mother cat. But usually, cats meow at people because they want us to give them something.
Our feline friends have also worked out that we humans respond positively to meows, often giving them praise, pets, or other nice things when they do it.
It could be because the high-pitched noise isn’t too dissimilar to a baby crying, and triggers the nurturing instinct in us. In other words, our cats have “trained” us into looking after them by making the noise.

What does a cat’s meow mean?

Your cat’s meows
can mean a lot of different things
, but typically, it means your cat is asking you for something. They could be asking for food, to be let outside, looking for attention, or telling you they need help.
However, some cats will meow incessantly if they feel stressed or sick. Older cats especially may meow more if they’re confused and their senses aren’t as sharp as they were. If your cat is meowing near non-stop, it’s could be worth taking them to the vet for a check-up.
A lot of the time, you’ll have to examine your cat’s body language and what’s going on around them to figure out what they’re asking for. And although we can’t speak cat, you can learn to understand your feline friend because experienced owners can interpret the meaning of
40%
of their cat's meows.

Why do cats yowl?

Yowling is another common noise that cats make and they use it to talk to humans and to other cats. Depending on who the yowl is directed at, it can mean different things.
A yowl sounds like how it’s spelt, “
yoooowl
”. It usually sounds like a very long meow, and may even sound like you’re cat’s trying to sing.

Cat yowling meaning

When your cat yowls at you, it’s because they
really
want something. Often it’s because they want food, but they could yowl at you if they want attention, or if they want to be let outside.
However, if your cat is yowling without a clear reason, it can be a sign that something’s upsetting them. They may be in pain, or they may be worried that an unwelcome person or animal is in their territory.

Why does my cat yowl at other cats?

Meanwhile, cats yowl at each other to tell one another they’re ready to mate, and to help find a mate. Yowling like this is much more common in cats who haven’t been spayed or neutered.
Cats can also yowl at other cats when they’re protecting their territory. This will often be accompanied by other aggressive sounds, like growls, and tense body language like an arched back, pushed back ears, and an upright tail with their fur standing on end.

Why do cats purr?

Purring is another way your cat can communicate and share how they’re feeling. Although purring is usually a sign of a happy cat, it can mean a few other things too.
Kittens learn to purr within a few days of being born and it helps their mother and littermates to know where they are. They’ll also purr when feeding, which might be why many cats continue to purr when they eat. It’s a comfort thing that continues after kittenhood.
Some cats hide a high-pitched cry within a purr before meal times which sounds like a baby’s cry, which
triggers our nurturing response
and essentially tricks humans into giving them food.
Cats also purr for reasons other than to talk to us or other cats. It’s also thought that purring isn’t just a noise to communicate, that it helps to calm a cat down and
has healing properties
.

What does a cat purr mean?

Most of the time, your cat purrs when they feel content, and it’s one of the cat noises we humans are
best at interpreting
. However, purring doesn’t always mean your cat is happy.
Many cats will purr if they are nervous or stressed too. It could be a bit like a nervous laugh in humans.
Because purring may have soothing and healing properties, many cats purr when they’re stressed to try and calm themselves down and make themselves feel better.
Finally, a purr with a hidden yowl or cry could be your cat trying to convince you to feed them.

Why do cats hiss?

Although many of us think hissing is a sign of aggression, it’s thought to be the opposite. Cats will more often hiss because they feel threatened. That’s why many cats hiss at dogs, vets, or strange people, they’re scared!

What does a cat hissing mean?

A cat hissing is not a sign of aggression as many believe. It’s more likely to mean that the cat is feeling threatened, scared, or distressed. It’s their way of saying they’re uncomfortable with a situation, or that they feel vulnerable.

Why do cats chirp?

One of the oddest vocalisations cats can make is chirruping, chirping, or trilling. These are very short noises that can range from a peeping sound to a chittering sound.
Unlike most cat noises that are learned as kittens, chirruping and chirping are usually a way mother cats talk to kittens. It’s their way of telling their kittens that they found something interesting, or that they should follow them.

Why does my cat chirp when they see me?

It’s thought that chirping is also a sign that your cat is excited, and it’s often used as a greeting. Your cat might chirp at you as a way of saying hello and to show how pleased they are to see you. (Especially if it’s accompanied by them rubbing against you!)

Why does my cat chirp at birds?

One of the most common times for a cat to chirp is if they’ve seen a bird out the window, and it could be a sign that they’re hunting instinct has kicked in. It could also be an expression of excitement at seeing their “prey”, and even frustration that they can’t pounce on it.

What does my cat chirping mean?

Like many of your cat’s vocalisations, chirping can mean a few different things. Take some time to look at your cat’s body language to see what mood they’re in, and you might be able to figure it out.
Chirping is usually a sign of excitement and your cat will usually chirp
when good things happen
. Blinking, upright ears, and a swooshing or “?” shaped tail are all signs you’ve got a happy or excited cat.
Meanwhile, if your cat’s body is tense, they probably are. An arched back, crouched or stalking pose, and sideways ears are all signs your cat is in hunting mode, or that they’re ready to run away from an unwanted presence like a cat or a bird at the window.

Learning how to chat with your cat

Although you might not be able to have a conversation with your cat, you can learn to understand what they’re trying to say to you when they meow, yowl, or purr.
Check your cat’s body language to see how they’re feeling, and you’ll probably be able to get an idea of what they’re trying to say.
Do you want to learn how to understand what your cat is trying to tell you, and tell the difference between a happy cat and a sad cat?
Listen to our podcast
with feline behaviour expert Dr Sarah Ellis who explains how to understand your cat’s behaviour and how to make sure you’ve got a happy cat.

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