Did you know that your adult cat meows only to people but not to other cats? While meowing is the cat's primary form of communication with humans, cats speak to each other through scent, facial expression, body language and touch. Meowing is a language developed for humans probably because cats have learned that humans are unable to respond to scent messages or body language.
Vocalisations in cats have been loosely classed into five categories according to the sound produced: the purr, the chirr or chirrup, the yowl or caterwaul, the growl/snarl/hiss, and the meow.
The purr is a continuous, soft, vibrating sound made in the throat by most species of felines. Purring is often believed to indicate a positive emotional state but cats sometimes purr when they are ill, tense, or experiencing traumatic or painful events.
The chirr or chirrup sounds like a meow rolled on the tongue. It is used most commonly by mother cats calling their kittens from the nest. It is also used by friendly cats when eliciting the approach of another cat, or a human. Cats sometimes make excited chirping or chattering noises when observing or stalking prey.
The yowl is a loud, rhythmic vocalisation made with the mouth closed. It is primarily associated with female cats soliciting male cats, and sometimes occurs in male cats when fighting with each other. A caterwaul is the cry of a female cat in estrus (or "in heat") to attract male cats from a distance.
The growl, snarl and hiss are all vocalisations associated with either offensive or defensive aggression. They are usually accompanied by a postural display–puffed up hair–intended to have a visual effect on the perceived threat. The communication may be directed at cats as well as other species of animals, including humans. Cats hiss when they are startled, scared, angry or in pain, and also to scare off intruders into their territory. If the hiss and growl warning does not remove the threat, an attack by the cat may follow.
Meowing is a vocalisation of domestic kittens, used to solicit attention from the kitten's mother but also to let their mother know that they are cold or hungry. Although meowing to other cats ceases as the kittens mature and no longer depend on mum, they continue to meow to humans throughout their lives, probably because this behaviour gets people to do what they want and because they have become somewhat dependent on humans for survival through the process of domestication. The meow can be assertive, plaintive, friendly, bold, welcoming, attention seeking, demanding or complaining.
Meowing is done for several reasons, including to greet people, to solicit attention, to ask for food, to ask to be let into or out of the house, to complain, to demand resources and to express pain or anger. Some elderly cats may also start to meow excessively if they are suffering from cognitive dysfunction and become disoriented.
Do not ignore your cat when she meows. This is her way of asking you for something or telling you that something is wrong. The only exception to this general rule is if you are certain that she is meowing excessively because she has learnt that this type of nagging behaviour will gain attention. Do not punish your cat for meowing too much–discipline is unlikely to stop the behaviour but will cause her to become afraid of you. It is better to provide lots of attention when she is quiet and little attention when she is meowing excessively, granted that you have ensured her needs are met before assuming that she is merely seeking attention.