What Is Your Cat’s Meow Trying To Tell You?
Cats have formed bonds with humans for thousands of years. But what exactly is going on in our furry friends’ brains? What are they trying to tell us with their meows? And why did humans start keeping cats as pets anyway?
To help answer those questions and more, John Dankosky talks with Jonathan Losos, professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and author of the new book, The Cat’s Meow: How Cats Evolved from the Savanna to Your Sofa.
Can’t get enough cat science? Read an excerpt of the book.
Jonathan Losos is author of The Cat’s Meow: How Cats Evolved from the Savanna to Your Sofa, and a professor of Biology at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky.
DIANA PLASKER: And I’m Diana Plasker. Later in the hour, a conversation about water quality in Navajo Nation.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Plus a research collaboration between the Chumash Tribal Nation and Stanford scientists, how they’re working together to monitor a vital ecosystem off the coast of Central California.
DIANA PLASKER: And what’s Barbie made of? We’re talking plastics and toxicity.
JOHN DANKOSKY: But first, one of my favorite topics–
–cats. Oh, hey, buddy. That’s my friend Loki. He’s the most vocal of my three cats. And when you’ve been working from home for the past few years like I have, you get to know their preferred method of getting attention when trying to record an interview about cats. Now Helga is the most likely to jump in front of the camera. Sven is most likely to jump on my head.
But what exactly is happening in any of our furry friends brains? What are they trying to tell us with their meows? And why did humans, I don’t know, start keeping cats as pets anyway? Joining me now to help answer some of those questions and more is my guest, Jonathan Losos. He’s author of a new book, The Cat’s Meow, How Cats Evolved from the Savannah to Your Sofa. He’s professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Dr. Losos, welcome to Science Friday.
JONATHAN LOSOS: Thanks so much, John. I’m delighted to be here.
JOHN DANKOSKY: So what exactly got you interested in writing about cats because you are a biologist, but you actually study lizards?
JONATHAN LOSOS: That’s true. I’ve spent my career studying lizards, how they evolve, how they adapt to their particular environments. But I’ve always loved cats ever since I was five, and we adopted one from a local shelter. But I never thought there was much interesting research being done on cats– domestic cats– much less considered doing that research myself. And then a few years ago, I realized I was wrong. There actually is a remarkable amount of research, people studying cats in the same way that I study lizards and people study elephants and rhinos and so on.
And so I got the idea that it would be first to teach a class called The Science of Cats in which I would lure students into the class by their love of cats and then would teach them how we study nature using cats as the vehicle. And that class went really well. And so then I had the idea there are lots of people out there who like cats. Maybe they’d like to know what science has to say about where they came from, why they do what they do, and so on.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, let’s start with, actually, what you talk about in the title of your book, the cat’s meow. Anyone who lives with a cat is really familiar with the sound, of course. Is there a kind of universal meow language? I mean, what have scientists figured out about what meows really mean?
JONATHAN LOSOS: The short answer is no. There is no universal cat language where one sort of meow means I’m hungry and another sort means let me out of the room or whatever. But anyone who’s lived with a cat knows that they have different meows that they use in different contexts. And so the question is, are they trying to tell us something by these different meows? And if so, what?
Well, researchers looked at this question. What they did is they recorded particular cats meowing in different contexts when they were about to be fed, when they were being petted nicely, and so on. And then they played those meows to just random people and asked those people what was the cat’s context. Was it about to be fed? And people basically did no better than guessing except for the person who lived with that cat. That person was very good at saying that cat’s hungry, or that cat wants to get out.
And so what that means is that, although there is no universal language, cats and the people they live with kind of negotiate their own understanding. This meow means this. This meow means that. And so that ability of the cats to do that, to come up with this understanding, that is one of the features that evolved as cats were domesticated.
JOHN DANKOSKY: You also write that cats really don’t meow at each other. And living with lots of cats throughout my entire life, I’d never thought about this before. But yeah, cats meow at me, but they make other noises at each other but not that noise.
JONATHAN LOSOS: That’s absolutely true. I too was surprised when I realized that. I thought that cats meow to each other to communicate. And that by meowing to us they were essentially including us in their social circle. But people have studied cats living in colonies outside, and they find that the cats rarely meow to each other. And so the fact that they meow to us is another feature that evolved during domestication.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Maybe you can give us a little short crash course here on cat evolution. I mean, how did we end up with wild cats living in our living rooms?
JONATHAN LOSOS: Well, that’s a great question. It turns out that there are lots of wild species of felines. There are 42 species in the wild– lions and tigers and leopards, of course but also a lot of small species– ocelots, margays, many that people have never heard of. But there’s one species called the African wild cat. And the African wild cat looks pretty much like a domestic cat. If you saw one in your backyard, you would not say, what’s an African wild cat doing in my backyard? You would probably say, well, that’s a cool looking cat. I’ve never seen one quite like it.
So they are very similar to domestic cats. And it turns out that is the ancestor of the domestic cat. What happened is that, when humans first settled down and started living in villages and growing crops– this occurred in the area we now call the Middle East or sometimes called the Fertile Crescent. And that’s where the African wild cat naturally occurs.
And as people were growing crops, of course, farmers store the extra crops in places for the lean times, and those stores of crops attract pests. They attract rodents– rats and mice and so on. In turn, this bounty of rodents attracted some of the African wild cats, those individuals that were most willing to enter a village and be around people to take advantage of all the food. Now, in turn, people saw the African wild cats catching the rodents, realized that was a good thing, and probably were friendly to them.
They perhaps put out some extra food or let them come into the house into a nice, warm, sheltered place. And again, the cats most willing to be around people took advantage of that. And so there was this back and forth where people were benefiting from and allowing the cats to be nearby, eventually petting them and so on. And the cats most willing to take advantage of that hung around people. And basically, that led then to the domestic cat, that it evolved from the African wild cat.
JOHN DANKOSKY: You used the word domestic several times. But in your book, you talk about house cats being semi-domesticated, not in the same way that some livestock are domesticated or the way dogs even are. What’s the differentiation there?
JONATHAN LOSOS: Well, I have to say it’s not a scientific term– semi versus fully domesticated. But I mean, think about the dog and how different it is from the wolf. It’s anatomically very different, behaviorally very different. They have changed greatly during the domestication process. And this is true of most domesticated animals– cows, pigs, and so on.
But cats, as I mentioned a moment ago, are barely different from the African wild cat. They look very similar. There are almost no anatomical differences that always can distinguish the two. And there are only a few behavioral differences. I’ve mentioned some of them already– living in social groups, meowing to people, and so on. So domestic cats are only very slightly different from their ancestors. And that’s why they can so successfully revert to living in the wild that feral cats basically adopt the lifestyle of their ancestors because it’s not that big of a leap in the first place.
JOHN DANKOSKY: And in part, that’s because the genetic pool hasn’t really changed that much. I mean, since we brought in cats and domesticated them, a lot of people in the world have decided that just cats having tons of litters of babies isn’t a good idea. And so more and more cats are spade and neutered. And so, therefore, it seems like we’re not really extending into new different types of cats. The cat evolution tree is sort of almost at an end.
JONATHAN LOSOS: Well, now that’s half true that many, particularly in the United States, most of the pet cats that people get come from these colonies of stray cats where people go out and rescue them. And they take the kittens who are very socializable and become good pets or some of the adults that have been around people can become pets. So most of our pets are coming straight from the wild, so they’re not from the wild, if you will, from outdoor, unowned cats. And so they’re not changing very much.
On the other hand, there are different breeds of cats. And some of those breeds are quite different from your typical domestic cat. Just as with dogs whereas dogs are so different from wolves, there are some cats some breeds that are quite different from your typical domestic cat.
JOHN DANKOSKY: There’s so much that we still don’t know about cats because, as you say, there hasn’t been the type of research into domestic house cats that there has been into dogs or other species. What are some questions you’re still really curious about?
JONATHAN LOSOS: Well, I think we’d need to a lot more about what they’re doing when they’re out and about, both pet cats and also the unowned cats that are quite common in many places around the world. And so, much more detailed study of their natural history, of their behavior in the wild would tell us a lot more about their lifestyle. It would also inform us about the threat that they pose to the environment. There are many people concerned about outdoor cats catching birds and mammals and so on. But we need to a lot more, especially in the United States. We know in some places, for sure, there are big problems such as Australia. That is one question.
Another question is something we talked about already, how cats communicate with each other. As I mentioned, there has been research that suggests that cats don’t meow to each other. So it’s very widely said in the scientific literature cats don’t meow to each other. But for the most part, that all traces back to one very good study in England 30 years ago. We need a lot more detailed study of how cats communicate with each other to understand their social lives and to see how similar or different they are to lions.
JOHN DANKOSKY: And I think one other interesting piece of the future of the house cat is whether or not, through science, we could figure out a way to actually breed a house cat that could go outside but just doesn’t have the same instinct to kill birds or rodents or snakes or any of the other things that obviously people are so concerned about when their cats venture out of doors.
JONATHAN LOSOS: Absolutely. We’ve seen in cats and in dogs that breeders are capable of changing a breed into something very different. And think about all the breeds of dogs and also some of the breeds of cats that are quite different from your typical cat. Well, this is often done on their physical appearance, but it’s also selection on their behavior.
And you can create cats that are very placid or cats that are very active or so on. And there is variation in cats in their desire to go outside or what they do outside. And if breeders put their mind to it and selected only those cats that seem to have no interest in chasing birds, I’m quite confident we could create a breed of cats that was much more environmentally friendly.
JOHN DANKOSKY: We’ve never had a conversation on Science Friday about cats in which we didn’t hear from a lot of listeners saying it would be really good if cats didn’t kill so many birds. So I’m glad that it’s something that at least we can think about for a potential future.
JONATHAN LOSOS: I agree completely.
JOHN DANKOSKY: Jonathan Losos is author of the new book, The Cat’s Meow, How Cats Evolved from the Savanna to Your sofa. He’s a professor of biology at Washington University based in St. Louis, Missouri. Thanks so much for your time.
JONATHAN LOSOS: Well, you’re very welcome. It’s been a pleasure.
JOHN DANKOSKY: If you’d like to read an excerpt of the book, you can go to sciencefriday.com/meow.
John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have three cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut.