Cat’s Meows Are So Misunderstood

What is the meaning of a cat’s meow that grows louder and louder? Or your pet’s sudden flip from softly purring as you stroke its back to biting your hand?

It turns out these misunderstood moments with your cat may be more common than not. A new study by French researchers, published last month in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, found that people were significantly worse at reading the cues of an unhappy cat (nearly one third got it wrong) than those of a contented cat (closer to 10 percent).

The study also suggested that a cat’s meows and other vocalizations are greatly misinterpreted and that people should consider both vocal and visual cues to try to determine what’s going on with their pets.

The researchers drew these findings from the answers of 630 online participants; respondents were volunteers recruited through advertisements on social media. Each watched 24 videos of differing cat behaviors. One third depicted only vocal communication, another third just visual cues, and the remainder involved both.

“Some studies have focused on how humans understand cat vocalizations,” said Charlotte de Mouzon, lead author of the study and a cat behavior expert at the Université Paris Nanterre. “Other studies studied how people understand cats’ visual cues. But studying both has never before been studied in human-cat communication.”

Cats display a wide range of visual signals: tails swishing side to side, or raised high in the air; rubbing and curling around our legs; crouching; flattening ears or widening eyes.

Their vocals can range from seductive to threatening: meowing, purring, growling, hissing and caterwauling. At last count, kittens were known to use nine different forms of vocalization, while adult cats uttered 16.

That we could better understand what a cat wants by using visual and vocal cues may seem obvious. But we know far less than we think we do.

“We often take for granted our ability to understand the people and the animals that we’re close to, and that we live with,” said Monique Udell, director of the Human-Animal Interaction Laboratory at Oregon State University, who was not involved in this study. “It’s worth doing these investigations because it’s showing us that we’re not always accurate, and it helps us understand where our blind spots are, that we really do benefit from having multiple sources of information.”

And the fact that we’re not very good at picking up on signs of animal discontentment should not come as a surprise, Dr. Udell suggested. “We’re more likely to perceive our animals as experiencing positive emotions because we want them to,” she said. “When we see the animals, it makes us feel good, and our positive emotional state in response to the animals gives us these rose-colored glasses.”

Even some of the most common cues may be misunderstood.

Purring, for example, is not always a sign of comfort. “Purring can be exhibited in uncomfortable or stressful conditions,” Dr. de Mouzon said. “When a cat is stressed, or even hurt, they will sometimes purr.”

Such instances are a form of “self-soothing,” said Kristyn Vitale, an assistant professor of animal health and behavior at Unity Environmental University in Maine, who was not involved in the new study.

The same lack of understanding applies to visual cues in dogs.

“People tend to perceive the wag of the tail as this really positive thing,” Dr. Udell said. “Actually, there are so many different, subtle cues that can be given off with the tail. Is the tail wagging more to the left or the right? How fast is the tail wagging? Is it above the midline or below? All of those wags mean entirely different things. Some of them are happy. Some are pre-aggression warning signs. You can see the whole gamut in just the tail wag.”

These studies may help to improve not only owners’ personal relationships with their pets, but also animal welfare, the researchers say.

As an example, Dr. de Mouzon pointed to a cat’s habit of suddenly biting. “Over time, with cats communicating and humans not understanding, the cat will just bite,” she said, “because they have learned over time that this is the only way to make something stop.”

Animal rescue shelters use such findings to educate prospective owners. Dr. Udell and Dr. Vitale are assessing whether cats can be suitable as therapy animals, or in aiding children with developmental differences.

Dr. Udell said such interventions were “increasingly important when we’re looking at mental health, when we’re looking at children who have difficulty bonding with people, if we look at what is now considered the loneliness epidemic.”

She continued, “These are all places where animal companionship can make really big differences.”

And the benefits for improving relationships between pets and their owners can be profound, Dr. Udell said.

“You can’t rely on animals to be these effective companions if you’re not mindful of their welfare,” she said. “And animal welfare, human welfare and interactions between the two are intricately linked. If you’re improving the lives of animals, you’re likely providing better outcomes for people, too.”