Research has found some 19 different vocal patterns in cats, with individuals adding personal sounds only used with their owners. Most sounds fall into three groups: closed mouth greeting (purr or chirrup), fixed open mouth emotional sounds (hissing, growling or spitting), and open then closed mouth ‘meow’, which cats change depending on the circumstance. Kittens meow to communicate hunger, cold or fear to their mum. Adults communicate with each other by hissing, growling and using body language and scent.
An exception is the ‘yowl’ (similar to a meow but more drawn out and melodic). Adult cats yowl at each other specifically during breeding season.
Meowing in adults is usually reserved for communicating with humans.
How does the meow work?
Sound is created when air from their lungs vibrates the vocal cords in the larynx (voice box). Our larger brain gives us the capacity for sophisticated language. Cats just don’t have the brain power. They make up for it by altering their meow in order to communicate. Dr. Susanne Schötz, a phonetics professor at Lund University, explores cat vocalization and communication with humans in a study called Meowsic. She explains that a cat’s meow is an “opening-closing” mouth mechanism creating a “combination of vowels resulting in the characteristic [iau] sequence.”
How much meowing is too much?
This is a tricky question as all cats have different personalities and different levels of ‘normal’ vocalisation. This may be affected by how much we talk to them. If meows are answered with attention or food, cats learn how to manipulate the situation (and human). Meowing is normal and is often just a way of saying hello, asking for a door to open, for attention, or more usually for food! Certain breeds like the Siamese are known for being talkative. It’s important to know get to know your own cat’s ‘normal’. Watch out for changes in tone and frequency of meow, plus any other symptoms.
What could cause an increase in meowing?
Changes in vision (or hearing) could lead to disorientation and vocalisation. Cats compensate remarkably well if loss is gradual, using hearing, smell and touch (whiskers). However, sudden loss of sight is initially very distressing. They may bump into objects and become withdrawn.
Cats experiencing stress can vocalise. If there could be something stressing your cat such as a new pet or baby, a move, or changes to the home, talk to your vet about ways to help.
When in pain, cats may become more vocal. Cats can suffer pain for a wide variety of reasons. For example, cats suffering from feline lower urinary tract disease and having difficulty passing urine, will often vocalise more. This can be a life-threatening condition in male cats, requiring immediate attention.
Hunger and thirst
Diseases causing increased hunger or thirst often lead to excessive meowing because of begging (or attention seeking) behaviour. Hyperthyroidism, diabetes, and some cancers may increase your cat’s appetite. Diabetes, urinary issues and kidney disease may increase thirst. Cats may ‘request’ fresh water, a clean litter tray or access outside more often. Most of these conditions, however, will have other signs.
Common in older cats, it’s caused by an overproduction of thyroid hormone, usually due to a benign overgrowth of tissue. Commonly, cats suffer weight loss, increased appetite, increased activity and vocalisation. Vomiting, diarrhoea and increased thirst occur less commonly. Vocalisation may partly be due to demanding more food (and water). The condition speeds the metabolism, increasing the heart rate, eventually leading to heart disease. Increased blood pressure can affect organs such as the brain, kidneys and eyes. In people, high blood pressure can cause severe headaches. It’s thought cats may suffer similar pain, which may be an additional cause for meowing. Occasionally (1-2% of cases) malignant tumours cause a worse prognosis, but generally the condition can be managed well.
Chronic kidney disease
CKD is also common in aged cats. It’s thought 20-50% of cats over 15 years old will have some degree of CKD. Symptoms include increased thirst and urination, weight loss and a poor appetite. It can lead to high blood pressure. Although there is no cure, diets and medications may help slow its progression. High blood pressure may need medicating, otherwise it can lead to blindness and organ damage.
Diabetes is also seen in older cats. It’s caused both by abnormalities within the pancreas reducing the ability to produce insulin, and a reduced ability of the tissues in the body to respond to insulin. Insulin is vital for the body’s cells to use energy. Symptoms would usually be increased thirst and appetite (increased begging/meowing behaviour), alongside weight loss. Cats are treated using insulin injections and diet changes.
Can cats go senile?
Aging cats will suffer a decline in cognitive abilities (learning, memory, attention and spatial abilities) due to changes in the brain. This is often called senility, or dementia, as in humans. The proper term is cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS).
CDS is characterised by behavioural changes such as increased vocalisation. It’s often worse at night, given that the disorder affects sleep-wake cycles. Cats may be confused, soil in the house, and generally alter in character. However, behavioural changes can also result from other diseases, such as hyperthyroidism, renal failure, diabetes, high blood pressure and brain tumours. CDS can only be diagnosed once all other illnesses have been ruled out, so a vet check is essential. Sadly there is no cure for CDS. The symptoms may be managed to a certain extent by reducing anxiety. Managing the environment, pheromone plug-ins that release ‘comforting’ signals, and occasionally anti-anxiety medications (although none are licensed for this condition) can help. An antioxidant rich diet is believed to improve cognitive function.
The majority of these conditions are more common in older cats, and can be interrelated in complex ways. Whatever age your cat is, any changes in meowing shouldn’t be ignored. It may be something simple, but it also could be a warning of a deeper issue.