Why cats meow has always intrigued people and at times has led to some unfortunate misunderstandings.
Cats rarely "talk" to each other, as they are more into using body language and other physical signs to communicate with each other. But around humans, they've learned from watching us that we not only talk a lot, but we seem to expect them to talk back! So they do. They also learn that it's a very effective way to get our attention if they need or want something. It can help our relationships with them, but there are several situations that may lead to negative responses, or even life-threatening results, if they are ignored or punished.
Here are some reasons our cats meow:
1. Not surprisingly, there could be a health issue that is causing them pain or other distress. We need to heed their plaintive cries and check it out, even if it means a trip to the vet if you can't solve it quickly. I remember one older cat surrendered at my shelter who whined a lot, which is why the owner gave her up. After looking her over myself and not finding any sore spots or wounds, and a good range of motion for all joints, I looked in her mouth, expecting perhaps a bad tooth or gum disease.
She was drooling and her mouth didn't close completely. Using a flashlight, I discovered a tooth had broken off and lodged in the hinge area of her jaw, way in the back of her mouth. I reached in with some tweezers as a helper restrained her by wrapping her in a towel, and firmly grasped the tooth and slowly pulled it out. She flinched, of course, but after that, she was visibly grateful and had some cat food immediately, as if she had been starving for weeks. She probably was. She gained weight during her stay and finally was adopted to someone who was willing to pay attention to her needs.
2. Loneliness. Cats are social animals and though they adapt well to being the only pet in a household, they can and often do become lonely if their people don't pay attention to them. How would you like to live in a busy home, only to be ignored by everyone? They may be "independent" but they're not antisocial, unless they have to be. By the way, none of my cats can be called independent. I interact with them often and lovingly, and they are used to this, so they seek my attention frequently by calling me! Granted, that may annoy some people. But I have a great rapport with my kitties!
3. Plain old stress. Cats, like anybody, prefer to be comfortable, safe and free to enjoy their surroundings. If anything is disturbed or disrupted, they will adapt to it as well as they can, but not without consequences. If someone, such as another cat, a dog, or the kids are annoying them, teasing them, or hurting them in any way, they will generally hide out. But living under the sofa or bed all the time is not exactly an enriching environment and can lead to emotional problems. They may become silent, to avoid detection, or they may become cry babies, complaining about the conditions. It's up to us to help them be comfortable in their own homes.
4. They need or want something. Just like children, our cats may come to us to get them something, such as food, a favorite toy or invitation to play, or to let them out of or into another room and the door is closed. A common hint is how they will stare at the door knob.
5. Just sayin' hi. As mentioned, cats are social animals, so they may seek our attention by simply asking for it.