Q: One of my friends mentioned that cats (especially, the adult ones) meow only to humans and not at each other. Is this true?
A: The thing is that most cats only meow at humans. Why is this? Because cats communicate with each other via body language and smell.
In feral populations, we don’t see (or hear) meowing at all. We only see it in cats who are around humans. A feral kitten can learn to hold onto the meowing that served them well with their mother, and redirect it at a human who offers food, but if that link isn’t built early, it rarely forms later in life, no matter how socialized with humans it becomes.
So why are there so many people seeing behavior(and a few videos) seemingly showing cats meowing at each other? Again, they are more likely to be meowing because the human is right there filming. This sometimes results in funny videos, where each cat takes a turn to meow, so it appears as if they’re talking to each other.
Does that account for all these situations? Nope. I have seen cats meow at each other, but it’s usually litter mates or cats who have lived with each other for quite awhile. The meowing doesn’t mean anything to them. They don’t communicate that way, except for the equivalent of that one person you know (that person is me for people who know me) who can only make a series of grunts in the morning before their brains are fully caffeinated. You might be able to glean some information from it, but you can’t really be sure until you ask that person later. Same with cats and meowing.
Let me give you an excellent example of what people see and hear, and then make the wrong assumption about: My big tom, Kagetora, is 8. He’s such a tough guy that he fought a coyote and won while protecting kittens that weren’t even his. (Read his story here.) We adopted him and nursed him back to health, but he has a lot of sensitivity on his back that will be there forever. Our 15-month-old loves to play with him. He loves wrestling, chasing, all the good stuff.
Lately, when Kagetora and Stiles are playing, Kagetora will start making these little yelp-like meows. One could surmise that, since this happens whether or not humans are in the room, that Kagetora is trying to tell Stiles to lay off. That’s not a bad guess, but you’re thinking like a human, and failing to see the sheer intelligence that Kagetora is displaying. And make no mistake, Kagetora is not a really smart cat (he was poisoned and attacked by a coyote, so his brain isn’t what it used to be, but he makes up for it with cuddles), but he understands humans. Don’t worry, I’m an expert, and Kagetora tricked me. I was sure he was in pain, and I’d rush to his defense, scoop him up, and cuddle him (he loves cuddles more than any cat I’ve ever met).
Not only is Kagetora not making that sound at Stiles, he’s also plotting. Kagetora knows we can hear his weirdly baby-like crying yelps all the way across the house, he also knows that making that sound in the past has brought us running to rescue him, and subsequently even won him the rare chance to sleep on my daughter’s bed (top kitty prize in my house, generally reserved for our 18-year-old Wegie). So now he does it every single time Stiles tries to play with him.
And even though I know what he’s doing, and can plainly see that Stiles isn’t hurting him, I always have to break them up because I can’t listen to Kagetora make that sound. It’s too much. So, even though I know he isn’t hurt, my instincts are still to save Kagetora. And he knows this. So, yes, I am the target of those vocalizations.