Home cats are special in the way they know how to use their voice to communicate with their companions. In fact, they rarely meow to each other.
Researchers John Bradshaw and Charlotte Cameron-Beaumont in a new study revealed a few things. Before cats arrived with humans almost 10,000 years ago, these ancestral cats rarely encountered other members of their species, so they did not need to use their voices to communicate.
Instead, feral cats communicate through their sense of smell, or by rubbing or urinating on objects such as plants. That way, the cat doesn’t need to face other ferocious cats to send a message.
It’s still mostly the way cats communicate with each other, says John Wright, an animal behavior psychologist at Mercer University in Georgia.
But humans do not have as good smells as cats. So cats communicate with humans in a way that is most likely to get what they want by meowing.
Many cats even develop a variety of meows to express different needs and feelings or elicit different responses. For example, your cat may like to say hello, make a friendly call to go outside, or ask for food with a loud meow.
All cats meow like kittens to get their mother’s attention when they get hurt, get cold, or when they accidentally sit on them. While domestic cats perform this behavior in adulthood, feral cats and domesticated cats that have no owner live outdoors, most grow faster.
A study published in the journal Behavioral Processes also found that feral cats are more likely to growl or screech than domesticated cats. Domestic cats meow more often, indicating that they develop meow as a language reserved for their owner. In other words, a cat meows because it already knows that doing so will attract human attention.
If you’re curious about what cats want to convey, Wright argues, you can encourage them to communicate. If humans respond verbally and pay attention to the cat’s calls and purrs, they can create a reciprocal conversation that is almost like a conversation.
“If you give your responses positive enough and predictable enough that they can listen to your voice, then they can try and communicate with you,” added Wright.