What Does “Meow” Mean in Cat? Understanding Cat Language

by Jazmin Murphy   January 10, 2020

Table of Contents

What does “meow” mean in cat? Domestic cats produce so many unique vocalizations that it’s hard to keep up with each sound’s potential meanings. Some, in fact, have several definitions! Luckily, context clues can often give you an indication as to what your feline companion may be trying to convey.


What is the meaning of the cat meow? Cat sounds have a long list of purposes, ranging from affection and playfulness to aggression and discomfort. While the “meow” itself is quite versatile, other noises like “squeaks” and “gurgles” often signal affection or joy. Other sounds like the “caterwaul” might be a warning to stay away. 


Although their communication can seem quite random at times, cats have come to master the way they communicate with humans. Over the 5,000 years that we’ve spent in each other’s company, cat owners and scientists have come to determine the following meanings of several cat vocalizations. 

What does "MEOW" mean in Cat?

Although “meow” is the most common vocalization we hear from our beloved domestic cats, scientists have recorded over 21 distinct cat sounds, each with a unique meaning. Despite the wide variety of sounds recorded in research thus far, scientists believe there are still more to be discovered. 


Yet, based on what we know now, what is the meaning of different cat meows? What your kitty intends to say when they meow depends on several factors, both within themself and the surrounding environment. 


For instance, some kittens’ meowing may indicate that they are fearful or lonely. However, an adult cat’s vocalization likely means they are hungry. However, remember that not all cat’s communications are directed toward their human companions. They could also be chatting it up with another kitty. 


The list of possibilities of what conversation your kitty is trying to have with you is surprisingly long. Here’s a peek at what might be going through your cat’s mind when they meow. 

The Meaning of the Cat Meow

Not all cat vocalizations are “meows.” Yet, for the purpose of this definition chart, we’ll break each sound down as a different type of “meow” and walk you through the meaning and context of each. 


No matter who your feline companion is talking to, the descriptions below should help you out in determining what your fur-baby is trying to convey:


Caterwaul or "mowl"

This is a drawn-out whine that can take various pitches.

When Might You Hear Your Kitty Do This?

Usually, males in heat will do the caterwaul. You might also hear females do this when they’re stressed or feeling defensive.

Meaning of Cat Meow

When male cats do this, it’s a signal that they’re feeling a bit frisky. Female cats’ caterwauls are quite the opposite, though. It usually means she wants whatever she’s talking to, to keep their distance.

Example

Chirp or "Chirrup"

Many think this sounds a bit like a bird’s chirp. Your kitty may chirp once or multiple times in a row. If the latter, it’s known as a series of “chirrups.”

When Might You Hear Your Kitty Do This?

Your cat might do this when it wants company or needs help with something.

Meaning of Cat Meow

The chirp means that your cat is trying to find you or another cat or they want something (like food or a prey item such as a bird outside). Mama cats will make this noise when approaching their “nest,” too.

Example

Gurgle

These are expressed in short pulses. They sound similar to you when you gargle mouthwash. 

When Might You Hear Your Kitty Do This?

Only cats that are familiar with you or are generally friendly toward you will make this sound when you’re petting them.

Meaning of Cat Meow

The chirp means that your cat is trying to find you or another cat or they want something (like food or a prey item such as a bird outside). Mama cats will make this noise when approaching their “nest,” too.

Example

Meow

This is the sound we all know, the distinctive cat sound that these felines make in seemingly any circumstance that calls for communication. 

When Might You Hear Your Kitty Do This?

Cats will “meow” in almost any circumstance, ranging from casual social settings to searching for a companion. 

Meaning of Cat Meow

The cat’s meow is a multipurpose vocalization that has many different meanings. Its definition depends very much on the context of interaction.

Example

Squeak

This sound comes out in bursts and is usually very high-pitched and raspy. 

When Might You Hear Your Kitty Do This?

You can expect to hear this near feeding time or during play.

Meaning of Cat Meow

The cat’s meow is a multipurpose vocalization that has many different meanings. Its definition depends very much on the context of interaction.

Example

Why is my Cat Yowling?

The “yowl” is one of the many cat sounds that indicates a sour mood. Normally, when a cat yowls, it is not happy with the situation and is agitated. This vocalization is meant as a threat, giving the listener a warning to back off or stop their antagonizing behavior. 

If there is no direct threat, the yowl may instead mean that your cat is under another sort of stress. The possibilities depend on the age and health of your kitty:

  • For any cat, yowling might mean that they are stuck somewhere and can’t get down or out. Ask yourself: Did you accidentally lock your kitty in the closet or pantry? Did your cat jump on something that they’re too scared to come down from?

  • Adult cats might yowl when they're ready to mate.

  • Elderly cats will likely yowl if they’re disoriented or lost. This is even more of a possibility with cats suffering from cognitive degradation or visual impairments that interfere with their navigation

Yowls are quite similar to howls but are typically drawn out for much longer and sound quite harsh. Howls are also distinctly aggressive or defensive behavior, so based on your cat’s body language, you’ll be able to tell what they’re feeling. 


Why My Cat Meows at Night – An Understanding of Cat’s Odd Behaviors

Some nights, when you’re trying to fall into a peaceful slumber, you might hear your kitty raising a suspicious “meow” call into the darkness. Why? Don’t they know you’re trying to get some rest! Well, your cat’s meow has little to do with the time of day, and lots to do with how they happen to be feeling at the moment. 


There are two primary explanations for the meaning of the cat meow at night, both of which pertain mostly to adults and elders:

  • As mentioned above, elderly cats can easily become disoriented if they live with cognitive or visual impairments. Moving around in the darkness can exacerbate these challenges, and make it harder for your kitty to navigate the space. They might let out a few “meows” in hopes of getting some help. 

  • Lots of cat owners find that their cats are unusually active at night. If your kitty happens to be window-watching in the evening, they’ll probably meow a few times, asking to be let out. 

Of course, these meows can happen at any time of day. However, if you hear them at night, the two meanings above are the most probable. 

What Does It Mean When a Cat Meows a Lot?

Often, you can readily tell the difference between a distressed “meow” and a casual vocalization. However, when you hear these sounds in succession to the point that it seems a bit excessive, it may be time to worry. 


Some of the most common reasons why your cat might be talking its head off include high stress and illness. Cats that have a lot of pent-up energy and frustration will become abnormally vocal. This is a common response to introducing a new baby into the home or a big residential move. 


On the other hand, your cat could be sick. Feelings of intense pain, dehydration, or symptoms of thyroid and kidney diseases often lead suffering cats to meow a lot. If you suspect that something might be wrong with your kitty, take them to the vet as soon as possible. 


(Note that some cats are simply more “talkative” than others. Knowing the difference between when your cat is meowing too much versus when they’re merely being social is entirely dependent on how well you understand your specific kitty’s behavior. 


Don’t jump to conclusions about your cat’s health too quickly, and please pay attention to other behaviors in addition to excessive meowing to decide when it’s time for a vet visit.)

Cat vocalizations are incredibly diverse. From mere affection communication to deliberate warning signals of aggression or distress, these sounds can tell you quite a bit about your kitty’s psyche. 


Hopefully, with this deep-dive into the meaning of the cat meow, you’ve learned to master “conversational” exchanges between you and your fur-baby.


About the Author

Jazmin “Sunny” Murphy began writing informal scientific content on nature and animals in 2015. Four years later, she launched her freelance career as a digital content and copywriter. This work merges her academic perspective, rooted in her B.S. Zoology, and professional experience as a veterinary tech, university research assistant, and more with relevant marketing, SEO, and engagement techniques across various industries. Jazmin now covers pet care, pest control, cannabis, outdoor recreation, STEM research and news, and product reviews across several niches.


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