Feline vocalisations come in a range of forms. They range from the tiny, piping cry of a new kitten to the full-throated meow of a hungry adult. There’s the angry hiss and the three-a.m. yowl, the inquisitive “prrt?” and the rumbling, contented purr. Some cats sound almost human when they meow, while others sound like some kind of alien being. Then there are the cats who never seem to meow at all. Some of these don’t seem to vocalise in any way, unless they’re hissing or screaming. Others can meow after a fashion, but it’s more of a soft squeak.
Why my cat can’t meow, just squeaks: Meowing is a learned behaviour that has developed among cats that live with humans. Soft squeaks are a cat’s natural vocalisation. Kittens must learn to meow from an adult cat, or from listening to humans speak. Not all cats learn to meow.
You’ve arrived on this page because you have questions. Why can’t my cat meow? Why does my cat squeak instead of meowing? Is my cat okay if he can’t meow? Why would an adult cat squeak? Is my cat’s throat damaged? Can my cat learn to meow? What kinds of sounds is it normal for a cat to make? How do kittens learn to meow? Keep reading, because we have the answers you’ve been hunting for. You’ll learn the reason that your cat squeaks instead of sounding like an adult, and the fascinating story of the cat’s meow.
Why My Cat Can’t Meow, Just Squeaks
Most cats vocalise with that familiar “Meow!” Some cats are very talkative — my old Siamese mix loved nothing more than to sit near me and interject with chatty meows while I went about my day. By contrast, my British Shorthair tom isn’t really a talker. In common with the British Shorthair cats need plenty of attention from their humans to be happy. Remember, this is the same breed, his meows are rare and reserved for serious emergencies only (such as when I’m five minutes late with his meals). It’s such a normal sound for a cat to make. You’d never know that it wasn’t part of a cat’s natural range of vocalisations.
The strange fact is, cats do not naturally meow. Feral cats with no exposure to humans don’t meow at all. They may scream and hiss when fighting, but they don’t produce the chatty meows we’re used to. Between themselves, cats use a range of sounds — many of them beyond the range of frequencies and volumes that humans can hear.
You might be surprised to learn that can’t don’t naturally meow. This particular vocalisation developed as a way to communicate with humans: it’s a noise that cats can make which is within our range of hearing, a compromise between their natural squeaks and our speech.
Some people seize upon the cat’s meow as an example of cats being “fake” and mendacious. Their position is that cats are attempting to mimic human babies in order to secure care and affection from humans. This, to me, seems like yet another slander against the feline population; cats are smart, but I doubt they’re capable of formulating a species-wide conspiracy. It’s true that cats can sound like babies, but this is a coincidence rather than an evil scheme to exploit our protective instincts.
Cats have to learn to meow when they are very young, as kittens. Normally the meowing is something they’ll pick up from their mothers and other adult cats who are present during their formative weeks. Kittens with non-meowing mothers, or who are hand-reared in the absence of a mother cat, may also learn to meow as they mimic the speech of their human carers.
If a cat squeaks softly instead of meowing, the most probable explanation is that there was nobody around who either spoke or meowed when that cat was a kitten. You’ll most commonly see this in feral or semi-feral rescue kitties. There are one or two health conditions that can also prevent meowing in cats, as we shall see.
Can My Cat Learn to Meow?
If your cat is already an adult, then learning to meow is probably no longer on the cards. Most cats will catch onto the fact that humans can’t hear their highest and quietest vocalisations. These cats will use whatever sounds they can make that humans do respond to. In some cases, this will, unfortunately, be screaming. Generally, though, they’ll resort to kitten-like squeaks.
A friend of mine has the most enormous, belligerent-looking ginger tom you ever did see — a real bruiser, with one ear, several impressive scars and the heavy build of a male who wasn’t neutered until later in life. This cat has never, ever learned to meow, despite being a member of a human household for several years and living with other cats who can meow. Instead, he squeaks. The sight of this enormous lout of a cat squeaking like a kitten is one of the funniest things I’ve ever encountered. He can hiss and growl, of course, but usually doesn’t (he has quite an even temper for a former feral). Because he was reared away from humans until he was well into his third year, he has never and probably will never learn to say anything other than “meep”.
Is My Cat Okay?
If your cat has never meowed and has always produced small squeaks, there probably isn’t any kind of physical issue to worry about. It’s rather as if the cat has a feral “accent”. The throat and mouth would be physically capable of producing a meow, but the cat never mastered the skill.
If your cat used to meow but has now taken to squeaking, however, there could be a problem. Inflammation due to an infection of the throat or mouth tissues would be my first guess, but injuries or even a serious problem like pneumonia could also be at fault. You should speak to your vet about getting a check-up for your cat if his vocalisations have changed dramatically. It could be a sign that medical attention is required.
Other signs that your cat is squeaking due to a health problem could include:
- Disinterest in food
- Vomiting and loose stools
- Missing the litter-box
- Changes in behaviour, such as hiding, aggression, destructiveness or unsociability in a previously friendly cat.
If you see these and they don’t clear up after a day or two, seek veterinary attention for your pet. If the cat isn’t eating or can’t get up, go immediately — don’t wait.
Cats and Humans: Why Do They Meow?
A question that you may be pondering is: Why do cats want to talk to us? Why would cats have developed as a communication strategy for interacting with humans? Aren’t cats aloof and distant, only living with people for shelter and food?
Cats have been not part of human civilisation for as long as dogs, but they’re not new to the scene. The bones of cats have been found among the remains of Iron Age settlements. While these cats probably weren’t “pets” in the way that we know them now, they certainly interacted with humans. It’s very likely that some would form some kind of social bond with the humans around them. Being able to attract a human’s attention in a neutral way (as opposed to screaming or growing, which are anger and fear responses) would be distinctly advantageous.
Cats might not have lived with Iron Age humans the way our cats live with us, but they certainly entered homes sometimes and often lived nearby. Being able to attract the attention of a human who might provide food or other assistance would be a useful skill.
Cats are generally fairly social creatures, forming colonies of related individuals. The ancestors of today’s domestic cats were African Wildcats, a rather more friendly bunch than their European Wildcat cousins. When they came into regular contact with humans, it’s likely that these cats would have developed a way to communicate. Cats have probably been trying to talk to us humans for a very long time.