Cats may not speak in words, but they definitely have their own language. The meow of the domestic feline is expressed in many different ways with many different meanings. Here's a short list of how to understand not just what your cat is trying to say, but what they mean;
The meow: "I am here and I want your attention."
If possible, you should give your cat attention when they make the lighter meow, so they feel comfortable 'talking' to you. It is important to set a precedent so your cat will let you know when something is wrong. Depending on the position of your cat and the surrounding circumstances, a meow can be a request for food, to go outside, to have their water dish refilled, etc. Respond accordingly.
The mewl: "I am insecure and want your comfort."
This is a high-pitched, light sound that is usually uttered by kittens, but is also made by adult cats if they are feeling insecure and scared. Comfort your cat and make them feel safe and loved.
The chirp: "Hello, I am your friend".
A light chirp indicates that your cat is curious and amiable. It is a nice greeting that should be treated with according petting.
The hiss: "Get away from me."
This could be a sign that your have touched your cat the wrong way or stepped on their tail, in which case you should back off. It might be a sign of agitation, and if you have other animals around, could indicate a fight. If this is the case, separate them until they calm down.
The yowl: "I am ill with injury/sickness/arousal".
This indicates discomfort, either from being in pain or being in heat. The latter case will not occur if your cat is fixed, but if they are capable of reproducing, they should be kept away from other cats (unless you are trying to breed). The former case means that something is wrong and that you might need to take them to a vet.
The purr: "I am content and relaxed."
If you hear this sound, you are doing well by your cat. However, a stronger, harsher purr indicates that they want more comfort; if you hear this sound after you have stopped petting your cat, this indicates that they want more. Obviously you can't pet your cat at all hours, but you might just want to throw them a bone and give them more petting. It'll be good for you, as well.
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About the author:
A freelance writer/cartoonist living in LA, with my fiance' and our wonderful cat. You can see my work at www.rubysworldcomic.com and rubynation.smackjeeves.com