Why is my cat's meow more like a squeak?

Dear Sinéad, Siouxsie and Thomas,
I have kind of a strange question. I have a very sweet cat, but she has me puzzled. She doesn't meow. She's about 8 months old, purrs constantly, but when she tries to meow only a little squeak comes out. Is this normal? I've looked everywhere for an answer as to why she doesn't, but just can't find one anywhere. Can you help me understand what's going on here?

--Valerie

Sinéad: Well, Valerie, cats have a range of voices just like humans do.

Siouxsie: That's right. Some cats talk very loudly and some are quiet and meek.

Thomas: A cat's voice depends somewhat on the breeds in their ancestry. For example, those of us descended for Oriental cats tend to have louder and lower-pitched voices.

Sinéad: Siouxsie and I have lovely, loud voices and we love to sing arias! But Thomas, for being the big bruiser of a boy-cat he is, has a much more high-pitched and quiet meow.

Siouxsie: Cats' vocalizations also depend on what they were taught as kittens. If your kitty's mother was a quiet cat, it's very possible that she never learned how to meow all that much.

Thomas: Also, most of us meow when we're communicating with humans, not with other cats. We learn that humans like it when we respond to their voices, so some of us tend to "talk" more than others for that reason.

Sinéad: Remember, Valerie, that even if your cat doesn't meow at you, she's still communicating with you. The gestures she makes, the position of her ears, whiskers and tail, how she holds her body.....all of those things are ways cats communicate. If you're interested in learning more about cats' body language, you can read our columns on feline body language.

Siouxsie: The fact that she purrs constantly shows that she loves you very much and feels comfortable with you.

Thomas: I wouldn't worry about your cat's lack of a "real" meow, as long as she's always been that way. If your cat used to be a big talker and suddenly stopped, or the pitch or volume of her voice suddenly changed, that would be a good reason to take her to the vet.

Sinéad: Sudden changes in a cat's voice can be due to any number of things from a bit of overuse laryngitis to a tumor or injury to the vocal cords. I actually got laryngitis once! You see, I had a little adventure outdoors and I climbed up a fire escape all the way to the fourth floor of a building. Then I called Siouxsie to show her how high up I was and I found that my voice echoed all around. That was so cool that I just had to sing arias until I couldn't sing anymore.

Siouxsie: Yeah, and you sure sounded funny when you came back down and you were all "grrrrak, grrrraak," instead of "meeeaoooow! meeeaaooow!"

Thomas: Well, Sinéad, darling, your voice is just as beautiful as ever now.

Sinéad: Awwww, shucks!

Siouxsie: Oh, cut it out, you two!

Thomas: Sometimes respiratory infections can cause changes in a cat's voice, too. If your kitty gets a cold and his voice changes during that period, or even for some time afterward, it may be due to the need to heal damage or swelling caused by the infection.

Siouxsie: And, of course, as is the case with humans, different-size cats have different-size voices. A very tall human man usually has a very deep voice because he has longer vocal cords than a shorter man, and a shorter woman may have a higher vocal range than a taller woman.

Sinéad: In your cat's case, Valerie, it sounds like your cat is just one of those who always had a small voice. Siouxsie and I actually had pretty small and kitten-like voices until we reached puberty, too. She may come into her Big Kitty Voice on her own, especially if she goes through a heat before she's spayed (although we wouldn't recommend letting your cat go through a heat OR a pregnancy before having her fixed).

Siouxsie: Our great-grammie kitty, Iris, was always a quiet cat with a small meow, even after she'd had a few litters of kittens. Mama says she didn't even cry a lot when she was in heat! She didn't really start howling until she got quite old and lost her hearing.

Thomas: It's perfectly normal for your kitty to have a small voice, and some pet parents would say you should be grateful for that. Even Mama says so sometimes, when Siouxsie's walking around the house bellowing at the top of her lungs in the middle of the night, waking us all up out of a perfectly decent sleep to inform us that she's caught one of her toy mousies!

Siouxsie: Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr! You want a whack on the muzzle, stripey-head?

Sinéad: Well, Siouxsie, you could be a little bit quieter. Our neighbor doesn't need to know about your mousie-catching exploits, after all. In fact, she'd probably prefer not to.

Siouxsie: I suppose.

Thomas: We hope we've set your mind at ease, Valerie. Enjoy your lovely kitten and her thunderous purr and squeaky meow.

Got a question? Need some advice? E-mail Sinéad and Siouxsie at advice@paws-and-effect.com. None of the advice in this column is meant to be a substitute for regular veterinary care.