The Meaning of Your Cat’s Meow
Domestic cats make different sounds than their wild ancestors, suggesting that they have evolved to get our attention
Anyone who’s lived with a cat knows that there’s no “one-size-fits-all” meow. Rather, a cat has a diverse meow-cabulary, with different sounds used in different situations. Other animals have similar vocal repertoires. Dogs vary their barks, and monkeys have different alarm calls for different predators. But is the variation in meows meaningful, and can human beings really learn to understand what cats are “saying”?
Nicholas Nicastro, then a doctoral student at Cornell University, set out to answer that question in a 2003 study that involved recording more than 500 meows from his own two cats and others that lived with a dozen friends and relatives. To make the recordings, he went to the cats’ houses and hung around until they were accustomed to his presence, which usually took an hour. Using a microphone placed within 6 feet of the cats, he then recorded the meows they made when they were being friendly toward their human housemates, when they were about to be fed and when they were being brushed vigorously. Recordings were also made when the cats were placed behind a door or window they wanted to go through and when they were placed in an unfamiliar environment—specifically, inside Dr. Nicastro’s car.
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