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The Cat’s Meow — What Does it All Mean?

How to decode your cat’s love language when one meow has many meanings.

by Jodi Helmer
Updated November 16, 2022
cat meowing
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Your cat knows one word, and they repeat it over and over. And over. Cats meow to communicate, get your attention, make a demand, and express an opinion — so it should come as no surprise that living with a cat often means a never-ending chorus of meows. But how can we tell them apart, and what if we just need them to pipe down a little?

Sometimes, the message is clear, or it’s a call to action: They’re happy that you’re home from work, they’re stuck in the closet, they’re hangry…or, Dr. Tammy Johnson suggests, “the vocalizations could be a learned behavior.” In other words, your cat might have discovered that, the more persistently they meow, the more likely you are to stop scrolling Instagram and pet them or share your fish taco.

As hard as it is, these cries for attention should be ignored, not reinforced. “If you want your cat’s incessant meowing to stop, don’t reward them with feedback or food — reward them when they are quiet.”

Before you tune them out completely, make sure that your cat isn’t trying to tell you something important. More frequent meowing, changes to the tone, or a perceived urgency could be a sign of pain or another medical issue.

For example, older cats with feline cognitive dysfunction (dementia) meow more than usual when they are confused or disoriented. On the other hand, when a cat who is normally a chatterbox goes quiet, “they might not feel well enough to meow,” Johnson says.

Female cats in heat can meow endlessly, as can unaltered males when they sense a potential mate nearby, but spaying and neutering is a quick fix.

Ultimately, “you know your cat better than anyone,” Johnson says. “If their meowing changes, and there is no attributable change in the environment, you should have your cat evaluated by a veterinarian.”

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Jodi Helmer

Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina-based freelance writer who shares her home with an embarrassing number of rescue dogs and relies on four feral cats to patrol the barn. When she isn’t refilling food and water dishes, Jodi writes about animals for Scientific American, Sierra, WebMD, AKC Family Dog, Living the Country Life, and Out Here.