Sorry, you probably don’t understand your cat’s meows.

By Seriously Science | July 30, 2013 12:00 pm

Photo: flickr/Rob DiCaterino

Are you one of those people who swears they can understand what their cat is “saying” when it meows? If so, you should pay attention to this paper, because it may tell you something about yourself. These scientists decided to try to verify whether people really can tell what cats are saying by recording cat meows in different contexts, such as food-related (being fed) or distress (in a car). They then played the calls back to people and had them classify what they thought the cat was talking about. The results? People are generally pretty crappy at telling what cats are meowing about (although cat owners do a bit better), and seem to actually use context rather than the cat calls themselves to determine what’s bothering their furry friends.

Classification of domestic cat (Felis catus) vocalizations by naive and experienced human listeners.

“To test for possible functional referentiality in a common domestic cat (Felis catus) vocalization, the authors conducted 2 experiments to examine whether human participants could classify meow sounds recorded from 12 different cats in 5 behavioral contexts. In Experiment 1, participants heard singlecalls, whereas in Experiment 2, bouts of calls were presented. In both cases, classification accuracy was significantly above chance, but modestly so. Accuracy for bouts exceeded that for single calls. Overall, participants performed better in classifying individual calls if they had lived with, interacted with, and had a general affinity for cats. These results provide little evidence of referentiality suggesting instead that meows are nonspecific, somewhat negatively toned stimuli that attract attention from humans. With experience, human listeners can become more proficient at inferring positive-affect states from cat meows.”

Photo: flickr/Rob DiCaterino

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: fun with animals
  • Kathy Kaufman Weber

    Their argument makes little sense. If someone says they know what their pet is saying, or maybe they know what their human baby is saying/wanting, it’s in context. It’s not the same as hearing a recording of it.

    • Kathy Kaufman Weber

      besides, aren’t people saying they know what THEIR cat is saying? They aren’t saying they can tell what random cats are saying – completely out of context. I’m all for science, but this aint it.

      • el travinsky

        exactly what i was going to say…after living with my 2 cats I think I can tell more or less what is going on. I hear a certain meow from the other room, and i know they are hungry. but when i heard a low howl the other day, i knew it was something bad. turns out they saw a cat outside and they were getting agitated. i would never purport to say i understand strangers cats i have never met.

  • Bill Miller

    From my experiences from having a cat for many years – and much like dogs – cats communicate with body gestures and eye-contact or focus-of- attention to give context to their “meows”.
    Cats, also, being much smaller creatures than humans, and aware of it, also use their “”meows” to announce or alert you to their presence.
    Both cats and dogs are very aware and time-consious of “routines” (e.g., when you let them outside to run; when you feed them; when you wakeup on the morning…etc.) If you break a routine, they will make you aware of it.

  • Noneya Biznazz

    Sounds like someone is attempting to turn the popularity of LOLcats into grant money.

  • kyberion

    Guys, I own a cat who is very simple to understand. He is very silent usually not saying anything at all. He only meows when he wants something from me. Like: feed me, let me out, you’re hurting me. Same meow for everything. The only thing that differs is the length. The longer the meow the more serious the problem. The longest meow on record was when I accidentally stepped on his tail. I don’t know about other cats, I only own one and it’s enough.

    • Jan Chilton

      I don’t think the tail mashing is the “longest” meow, but certainly the loudest one…haha. My calico gets impatient when I’m opening her can and goes mewwwwwwwwwwoooowwwwwwwww in a most rude way. Not loud, but demanding. My other cat runs to the door all the time and loudly demands OUUUUUUUUTTTTTTT! Then a little feral I rescued almost never speaks…until you step on her. Then you get the usual shriek.

      • Listen

        Hey Jan, I don’t think you know anything about your cats. Meow.

  • bob shriner

    Shadow met me at the door with a cry for help…I opened the door and smoke rolled out but shadow stopped at the door looked me in the eye and turned and led me to a smoldering coat…looked me in the eye, gave a chirp and left with a huff…the house was ok but I was floored. My wife and I watched Shadow walk and talk a kitten into the house for food and water…a cat called Skitter and that was 16 years ago. My friends below talk to me every day.

  • jason

    I’ve always wanted to see more research on this – but sadly don’t think this it. I’ve had several cats over the years, and they do seem to have some distinct sounds. The more typical meow seems to have a number of potential messages – of which many have already pointed out. In addition, my cat also makes short raspy yelps after being fed the “good stuff” or when he is really happy (giving attention after not being home). Additionally, there is a distinct “hunting” sound. It’s a gruffer sound, and also repeated short “rah” sound. Finally, I agree with the nonverbal stuff. Most of the times I need only give a strong direct stare to let the cat know he’s up to no good.

    • Bill Miller

      An example of using “meows” in combination with “body gestures” is when my cat wants me to follow her.
      She will walk towards me, giving a series of “meows”. If I don’t immediately respond, she’ll sit next to me and “meow” until I pay attention and make a move. When she has my attention, she immediately moves in the direction to where she wants me to go, occasionally looking over her shoulder to be sure I’m following. Also, she rubs up against objects along the way (door frames, furniture, etc.). When she reaches her destination, she sits facing it and occasionally glances at me — as if expecting some kind of action; like opening a door to let her out, replenishing treats I set out to keep track of her coming and goings, or to draw my attention to her empty food bowl.

      She also has a routine when she wants to sit with me or wants me to get up from my comfortable recliner. She approaches me in my chair, “meowing”, with her tail raised (she likes me to stroke her tail); makes a pass or two rubbing up against my chair, glancing at me; then sits at stares at me until I indicate to her, she can come up on me (permission). If she just wants to sit with me, she’ll make herself comfortable in my lap. If she wants me to get up to attend to her in some way, she’ll pace back and forth across my lap, looking at me, until I get up; then she does the “Follow-Me” routine.

  • Elle

    “Overall, participants performed better in classifying individual calls if they had lived with, interacted with, and had a general affinity for cats. These results provide little evidence of referentiality suggesting instead that meows are nonspecific, somewhat negatively toned stimuli that attract attention from humans.”
    …what? That doesn’t follow at all. According to the findings of the article, it indicates an ability for people to correctly understand what cats are saying based on experience (seriously, does anyone expect you to just know a language without learning?), to an extent that is statistically significant. Good lord the academic community is full of it.

    • The Spirit Bear

      Yes. And the ‘it’ they’re full of has an s and an h in front of it.

  • Snag

    My cats meowing changes as he ages. He makes certain noises for me to throw his mouse toys, when he wants to go outside etc., but over the years they do change. Most notably his calls are longer and more croaky than before.

    It is all about context.

  • BeanSoupMagyar

    People may not recognize the meows of strange cats. However, I am sure cat-owners would do better recognizing their own cat’s meows.
    Using the examples used in the article- my cat’s distress call from being in the car is vastly different to the feed me one.
    Other people’s cats? Couldn’t tell you what their different meows mean… but my cats… absolutely.

  • jaredswilliams

    5 minutes wasted reading this article. It really lacked content. Thanks for pointing out the obvious that no one speaks “cat” and it’s a matter of context. My cat paces around the food bowl, meowing, he wants food or water. He paces around his laser pointer, meowing (after eating) he wants to play.

    He paces around the door, meowing. He wants to leave the house. Thanks for the insight.

  • Ed Myers

    Meow meow meow meow meow, meow meow meow? Meow meow. Meow Meow Meow.

    Meow meow meow meow meow!!!!

    • Ed Myers

      Sorry, I forgot to log out and my cat borrowed my laptop. Jerk.

  • The Spirit Bear

    Meow, I think someone went almost all the way up a tree, and way out on a limb to milk some government body for some grant money. (Read: other folks’ taxes.) Well, I hope they enjoy their Kopi Luwak that my taxes paid for, as much as I enjoyed paying for it. (And as much as I enjoyed reading about how they waste it, meow.)

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Seriously, Science?, formerly known as NCBI ROFL, is the brainchild of two prone-to-distraction biologists. We highlight the funniest, oddest, and just plain craziest research from the PubMed research database and beyond. Because nobody said serious science couldn't be silly!
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