The Evolution of the House Cat’s Manipulative Meow

Eddie the manipulative meow

Eddie is an effective communicator with his soft, high pitched meow.

Cat-Human Communication

Vocal communication plays an important role in cat-human communication, in part because vocal communication is important to the human caretakers.  The meow, in particular, seems to be associated with vocal communication between domestic cats and humans.  Meows are most common in cat-to-human vocalizations, but they are rarely observed in cat-to-cat interaction.

Animal rescue workers have observed that the meow is not present in unsocialized feral cats, but only appears on regular contact with  human caretakers. Although some wild felids meow as juveniles, they rarely vocalize the call in adulthood. The exception to this rule is the adult African wild cat but unlike our domestic cats, the observed  wild cat meows were not directed at humans, but at the general environment.

The African Wild Cat and Our House Cats

African Wild Cat Green Leaves

African Wild Cat Image courtesy of Purina One from the One True Nature of Cats

In a study to test for the possibility of human influence on the meows in domestic cats, vocalizations by domestic cats (Felis catus) were compared with the cries of the African wild cat (Felis silvestris lybica), the domestic cat’s closest wild relative.  The study analyzed both the acoustic characteristics and perceptual studies with human listeners.  Humans were asked to rate the cat calls for pleasantness. In controlled listening conditions, and blind to the inclusion of calls from the two different cat species, human listeners judged domestic cat meows to be significantly more pleasant sounding than African wild cat calls given in comparable context.

Both the acoustic and perceptual comparisons showed clear species-level differences.  The domestic cat meows were shorter in duration and a higher frequency than the wild cat meows.  The humans listeners that participated in the study, regardless of their own experience and feelings for cats rated the domestic cat meows as far more pleasant sounding than the wild cat vocalizations. Domestic cats appear to meow at a higher pitch that sounds less threatening and more juvenile thus more appealing to human ears than the deeper pitched African wild cat calls.

 Cats Use the Manipulative Meow

Perhaps these results are due to domestic cats having learned over the course of their development which of their calls appeal to humans, whereas their wild counterparts have not. These results are consistent with a theory that domestic cats have adapted their meows to be more pleasing to their human caretakers. A more pleasant vocal communication strengthens  the cats’ ability to persuade  their caretakers into giving them what they desire. Thus the use of the term the manipulative meow.

You might also like our post:  Can You Understand Your Cat’s Purrs?  Listen and See.

Perceptual and Acoustic Evidence for Species-Level Differences in Meow Vocalizations by Domestic Cats (Felis catus) and African Wild Cats (felis silvestris lybica). Nicastro, Nicholas. Journal of Comparative Psychology 2004, Vol 118, No3. 287-296.

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  1. Leah McGrew says

    I have a few ferals that live in the house with us. We’ve had them since kittens, but they don’t interact with us, only with the other cats. Emily, one of them, meows to Tony, one of our tame cats. She won’t interact much with the other tame cats, its only Tony she is interested in. She will interact with her 2 siblings and doesn’t shun the other 2 feral cats (semi-feral actually, they can be touched) we have. Her siblings will interact with several other of the tame local residents, especially Rygel, the white eared cat in my avatar, she only seems interested in Tony.

  2. Cashew is the loudest in our house. He really likes to let you know when he wants your attention or something else. My son has this game he’s plays with Tubby. He will pretend he’s going to get him and Tubby does a bunch of small meows and shows off and just as son is going to touch him he runs down the hall. He could play for a long time. Tubby loves this game. It’s so funny. He will only do it for him too. Garfield has the littlest meow. Charlie is a lap cat so he will talk to you so he can get you to let him sit on your lap. He also loves to talk when you pet him and he starts to wiggle.
    Sue B

    • That sounds so fun to watch Tubby and your son play. Annie and I play hide and seek. Eddie and Mercy don’t seem too interested. Gracey loved to play hide and seek too.

  3. dmricciardi says

    My “kids” talk to me a lot, but they also talk to each other when playing — especially when chasing each other!!

    • That is interesting. I don’t hear Annie and Eddie talking much to each other. But if Eddie can’t find Annie he sits and lets out a high pitched cry until she finds him.

  4. heathermr says

    Bella doesn’t really meow she meeps. Shadow is very talkative, he has a demanding meow that sounds like NOW.

  5. da tabbies o trout towne says

    guys…de studee forgetted ta menshun that domestic kittehz ALWAYZ get what they want with a meowz two !! =^..^=