A cat’s meow is an odd affectation. We say affectation as it is something which adult cats do not generally do to each other, yet domestic cats regularly do to us. The main theory is that meowing in adult cats is related to the time when cats do normally meow, specifically when they are kittens. Kittens will meow to get attention, just as babies or children will cry out for milk or a new toy. While this may explain many of the times we might hear a cat meow, it does not explain why do cats meow when you pet them as, if you are petting them, they already have your attention.
We look into some of the reasons and interpretations of why cats meow when we pet them. We do so that we can better communicate with our feline friends, to discern their likes and dislikes and ensure their well-being as best as possible.
Meowing in cats and its meaning
Meowing is a form of communication, likely employed because we humans are often unaware the subtle language cats use with each other. Cats use their body language to speak to each other and often only vocalize when there is danger, amorousness or a fight is at hand. It isn’t only when we pet our cats that they will sound off. There are many reasons why a cat will meow and here are just some of the possible interpretations:
- Greeting: this is the typical meow we might hear when we return home from work or when your cat returns from whatever adventures they have been getting into while spending the day outside. It usually has a cheerful tone.
- Petition: this is usually a consistent meow with a very clear tone. Cats will want many different things from us, often related to their stomach, especially they see us eating. The more a cat wants something, the more intense the sound and the more persistent the meowing.
- Surprise: this will be a brief meow similar to a whelp or even a scream. This can be from anything which may surprise them. It could be seeing another animal, having their tail stepped on, seeing food they want or whatever might interrupt their daily routine.
- Sexual: if you have a cat which has not been sterilized, then they are much more likely to vocalize in general. However, when they are in heat, this is even more the case. If you have heard stray cats calling out to each other during mating season, you will know these meows can be persistent and distracting. This behavior, generally, will end after being spayed or neutered.
- Conversation: some cats like to interact with humans more than others. They may even try to stablish a ‘dialogue’ with us in the form of repeated or chattering meows. As we do not speak the same language, their meows may be a form of trying to create a response to the noises we make when we speak to them.
- Attention: when our cats get bored, they often call out in a bid for our attention. They often emit a soft mew to entice us over for petting or generally providing them attention. This can happen more so when they don’t have sufficient environmental enrichment to avoid boredom.
- Location: as cats see us as a protector and care provider, they often need us for security. If they feel lost or need us and can’t find us, they may meow to notify us of their presence. This is usually a loud cry to ensure our attention is met.
- Help: sometimes cats need us more than just to know where we are. If they are in danger, injured or are in a state of stress they may meow for our help. The more serious the need for help, the more intense the meowing.
- Disgust: while cats won’t have a moral disgust like we humans, they will often emit low growls or meows if there is something which displeases them. This could be in response to food they don’t like, being locked in a place they feel trapped or even people they just don’t take a liking to.
Petting our cat
While we have the above reasons why cats meow in general, there may be some more specific types of meows when we pet them. Some cats are reluctant to be petted. They may eschew it for playing or have had some experiences in the past which lead them to fear being touched by humans. If your cat does meow because they want to be petted, then here is some advice on the best petting practices:
- Head: cats accept and often ask to be caressed on the head. This can be a scratch on the top of their head, a tickle under the chin or stroking around the ears. Some will even butt you with their head in need of petting.
- Back: along the cat’s spine is a place on which they often like to be petted. It is the outer part of their body and often not as vulnerable as other places. This means that they may enjoy being stroked in this place, even by people they are not as familiar with (although it will depend on the socialization level of the cat). Many may even move their legs in a way which is reminiscent of being petted similarly as a kitten.
- Paws: cats do not usually like their feet to be touched, especially their paw pads as these areas are very sensitive. It may be similar to how you may not be able to handle your feet being tickled.
- Belly: this is a red alert zone for most cats. Their belly is a vulnerable place which needs to be protected, so they will only let you pet their bellies if they fully trust you. They will also likely try to grab your hands and defend themselves if they feel attacked.
Meowing when petted
The most important aspect of petting our cats is that we should get to know them. Every cat has a unique personality and will interact with us in different ways. In this way, we will be better able to understand what our individual cat is trying to say to us when they meow while being petted. You can even consider it feedback.
However, there are some general truths when it comes to your cat meowing while being petted. The first reason why a cat meows while you are petting them is simply because they enjoy it. Cats find it pleasurable when they are petted, just as we might enjoy getting a back rub or massage. While some social mores might prohibit us from making too many pleasurable sounds during these activities, cats are less repressed and will be happy to emit sound when they are enjoying something. Some cats are more affectionate than others and may be more vocal in their enjoyment.
The second main reason why a cat will meow when being petted is because they want you to keep doing it. If you have been at work all day, they may not know when the next pet is coming and will meow to keep it up as much as possible. It is important to note that a meow means they want you to keep going. A growl, shrill cry or hiss will likely mean the opposite.
A cat will meow when being petted to show they trust us. Being so close to a cat means they are opening themselves up to being vulnerable. They consider us family and allow us to perform this action.
A cat’s meow is not an exact science and we will need to pay attention to them to get to know what they are saying. This is because every cat will have their own way of speaking and may even make some odd sounds. Different breeds are also more prone to vocalization than others, so they may need more understanding. Eventually, with your own pet cat, you will start to know what they want to communicate to us with their specific meows.