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Why most cats purr and mew: it isn’t always due to what we think it is

Black and brown cat lies on its side cat-wow
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In March of 2015 two seminal studies of cat noises concluded that our cats were talking to us; not just about hunger or pain but also love and loneliness.

By Nick Whittle

Published on the 26/10/2019, 11:00, Updated on the 08/02/2021, 13:38

In our efforts to understand the reason for a cat to purr we usually stick with the notion that it is hungry. Purring or mewing has always been thought of as a sign of a cat’s wanting food.


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But think again. In truth, a cat’s communication goes beyond its empty stomach. The sounds, according to some scientists, are evidence of an attempt by the cat to talk to us, and demand attention.

Amid a comprehensive study of other forms of feline behaviour, Bristol researcher John Bradshaw found a vocal cat to be in need: either of attention or of company.

They haven’t got a good way of asking for help, it’s not in their language,” Mr Bradshaw told Mental Floss. “So they do the next best thing, they do the purring thing.”

Science proves the power of speech

Cats may not have co-existed with humans for as long as dogs but they already have the measure of our behaviour, and of how to get in touch with us. Says Bradshaw, cats have worked out that in order to attract our attention they need to “talk” to us. And this they do.

Generally, cats are quiet creatures. They have no need in the wild, for instance, to be vocal. But among humans they have learned otherwise.


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Furthermore, a professor of veterinary behaviour at the University of Georgia suggests cats are as adept at expressing their wants and needs as dogs are.

Sharon Crowell-Davis suggests a cat’s mewing denotes their want of something, and not necessarily food. On other occasions the cat may be telling you it has missed you.

Here is a short video from New York Magazine about how to interpret your cat’s behaviour: