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Cats, whether big or small, rely on vocalisations to communicate, and none is more important than the classic meow. It's how a kitten talks to their mom, how they greet their human parents, and how they ask for dinner. So if vocalising is such an important form of cat communication, then why do they sometimes meow without sound? Is there such a thing as a silent meow?
The Cat's Meow
To put a cat's meow into perspective, there are at least five different types of meows, and the tone and pitch of each meow signals a different emotion, need or want. Your kitty knows exactly which meow or chirp will get them a snuggle or a midnight snack. After living with pet parents for thousands of years, cats have picked up a few pointers on how to get what they want.
According to Nicholas Nicastro, who participated in a cat vocalisation research study at Cornell University, cats don't really use "true language," and don't understand what their own meows mean. But, he says, "Humans (or at least well-trained cat people) can assign meaning to sounds with various acoustical qualities because, through long association with cats, we have learned how they sound in different behavioural contexts." A cat's consistent use of specific vocalisations to communicate with their humans illustrate how well cats have adapted to domesticated life and how much humans have learned from their feline friends.
Why does my cat meow without sound? It's an intriguing question. While researchers know so much about various cat vocalisations and what they mean, the silent meow, when they open their mouth but no sound comes out, is an outlier of sorts. What's happening during this non-meow?
According to the Smart Living Network, "The occasional 'silent meow' is common among felines and nothing to worry about and some cats do use this more often than others." For many cats, the quiet meow simply is a substitute for a classic meow.
But is the meow really silent? As it turns out, it may be that your cat actually isn't meowing without sound; rather, it's just too quiet for you to hear. "A cat up to three feet away from the origin of a sound can pinpoint its location to within a few inches in a mere six one-hundredths of a second," explains Animal Planet. "Cats also can hear sounds at great distances — four or five times farther away than humans." With such an astounding sense of hearing, a cat instinctively will incorporate those extra sounds into their own communicative signals.
Therefore, if a cat can hear a high-pitched meow well above what a human is capable of hearing, then it's worth the cat's time to make that sound. So, it's possible that they are actually meowing, but they don’t know that you can't hear it as well as they do.
The Troublesome Meow
Depending on the breed, some cats, such as Siamese, naturally will meow louder and more frequently than others. In fact, excessive vocalisation may be a concern with certain breeds, as they never stop talking. Other varieties, including the Abyssinian, are known for being quiet. Learning about your kitty's breed is a great start to understanding and decoding their vocal signals.
Although a quiet meow generally is not a concern, there are instances when you should take action if you notice an atypical vocalisation pattern. When a typically vocal cat suddenly becomes quiet or their voice becomes raspy, for example, contact your veterinarian to check for any underlying issue or illness that may be causing the change.
Much of the time, when you notice that your cat is meowing without sound, it's not a cause for concern. The silent meow is one option that your kitty has at their disposal when they’re ready to tell you exactly what they want, when they want it and how much they love you.
Christine O'Brien is a writer, mom, and long-time cat parent whose two Russian Blues rule the house. Her work also appears in Care.com, What to Expect, and Fit Pregnancy, where she writes about pets, pregnancy, and family life. Find and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @brovelliobrien.