Meow Mixtape

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

by Jodi Helmer
Updated April 1, 2021
cat meowing

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Your cat knows one word and they repeat it over and over. And over.

“Who’s a pretty kitty?” Meow.
“Are you hungry?” Meow.
“Did you have a good nap?” Meow.

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. 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, DVM, suggests, “the vocalizations could be a learned behavior,” i.e. 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 that is normally a chatterbox goes quiet, Johnson says, “they might not feel well enough to meow.”

Female cats in heat can meow endlessly, and 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,” says Johnson. “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.