Why Do Cats Meow?

Instructor: Stephanie Gorski

Steph has a PhD in Entomology and teaches college biology and ecology.

In this lesson, we will discuss domestic animals and the ways in which cats are, or are not, domesticated. We will talk about how cats use meows to interact with humans.

Are Cats Domesticated?

Who rescued who?

If you know anyone who is enthusiastic about rescue cats, you might have seen that slogan, perhaps on a bumper sticker. But that simple idea- that both cats and humans have domesticated each other- has scientific truth behind it.

In fact, some argue that cats are still not completely domesticated, or that their domestication is less than 200 years old. Unlike every other domesticated animal, cats will revert to a solitary lifestyle if they are feral. Cats have a lot more genetic diversity than most domestic animals, and they are nearly indistinguishable from their wild relatives except for the greater diversity of their coat color. Cats still do breed with their wild relatives. Though specialized breeds of dogs arose about 3,000-4,000 years ago, specialized breeds of cats only arose in the last 200 years.

Wild relative of the housecat
Wild relative of the housecat

If you accept that cats are domesticated at all, the earliest archaeological evidence for their domestication dates to around 9,500 years ago in Crete, but the earliest depiction of housecats is from around 3,600 years ago, from tomb paintings in Egypt.

Domestication

Domestication is defined as a dependence on humans, for food, shelter, and choice of mates. Most domestic animals were chosen by early humans because their behavior made them easy to domesticate. Animals that live in packs with an alpha leader are easy to domesticate, because humans need only to set themselves up as the pack leader. Cats, in contrast, are solitary and territorial.

In addition, most domestic animals with the exception of dogs and cats were domesticated for food. Few domestic animals other than cats are carnivores, because carnivores are harder to feed. And if you know anything about cats, you know that cats, unlike most domestic animals, aren't particularly interested in obeying commands.

Cats were first domesticated in early agricultural communities. Cats, unlike many agricultural animals like cows and sheep, seem to have ''chosen domestication''. Cats began their domestic lives by hunting grain pests like rats and mice. This was a valuable service to humans whose grain stores were infested by mice. In return, humans provided cats with shelter and a steady food source.

Feral Cats

A cat that is not socialized; that is, it has not learned to interact in a friendly way with people, is termed feral. Not all stray cats are feral; some stray cats are housecats that have lost their homes. If a stray cat approaches you or makes eye contact, it is probably not a feral cat, because feral cats tend not to have any understanding of, or interest in, interacting with humans.

One specific habit that domestic or stray cats have but feral cats do not is communication. Domestic cats may ''talk'' to humans by begging, purring, or meowing, but feral cats usually won't. A domestic cat will often answer your voice, but a feral cat rarely will.

Behavior determines whether a cat is domestic or feral.
Behavior determines whether a cat is domestic or feral.

Communication and Meowing

So it seems that cats meow because of humans! What do cats gain from meowing to their human friends? As much as we might like to think otherwise, meowing is probably not a complex language in the way that human languages are. Cats probably don't know exactly what they are saying when they meow. But meows, though they aren't especially articulate, do convey some degree of meaning.

A Cornell researcher, Nicholas Nicastro, studied cat communication in 2002. He recorded 100 cat meows and had humans rate them for their pleasantness. He then had a different set of humans rate the same cat sounds for their urgency. He found that meows were rarely both pleasant and urgent; a pleasant sound was not rated as urgent and vice versa. Pleasant sounds were shorter, registered at both low and high frequencies, and usually started low and went higher. Urgent meows were longer and dominated by the low frequencies of sound.

It may benefit a cat to make an urgent meow, say, in the morning when it is trying to remind you to fix breakfast. However, it may benefit a cat to make a pleasant sound in a cat shelter, as this may increase its chances of adoption.

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