Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
I got my cat in January when she was 3 months old. My husband and I thought she was mute cause she wouldn’t meow. When we got her she was spayed already, which concerned me that they didn’t do the surgery the right way, or maybe she was too young. Even to this day, she still can’t meow. She opens her mouth but nothing comes out. But my other two cats understand her very well. It doesn’t stop her, OR them. She makes up for her silent meows with a lot of LOUD purring. She is the sweetest little kitten I have ever seen, and she does the cutest things. Still, I can’t help but wonder where her voice went!
Siouxsie: Let us reassure you, Kaisha, that it’s very unlikely there’s anything wrong with your cat.
Thomas: Lots of cats open their mouths and look like they’re meowing, but humans don’t hear any sound. I like to do that to Mama, because she thinks it’s really sweet.
Dahlia: The fact is, our “silent meow” is a real meow, but the noise we make is above the range of human hearing.
Siouxsie: Cats can hear sounds as high-pitched at 65,000 cycles per second. The only animals whose hearing is more acute than that are bats and moths! Humans, on the other hand, can only hear up to about 20,000 cycles per second. So we can hear lots of sounds that you can’t hear.
Thomas: This helps us a lot when we’re hunting rodents, because mice and shrews and the like make very high-pitched noises. Also, our hearing is so sensitive that we can hear the slightest scuffing of their movements.
Dahlia: We’re not at all surprised that your three cats understand each other so well! Cats communicate mostly by body language, and in fact it’s very rare for cats to meow at each other. Mother cats and kittens meow to one another occasionally, but we adult cats communicate much more subtly … oh, ouch! Thomas, stop it! You’re really annoying me!
Thomas: Oh, come on! I just want to hug you and groom you!
Dahlia: Leave me alone! What part of hisssss don’t you understand? … Dang it, now I’ve got my claw stuck in the blanket! Maaaamaaa! Help!
Siouxsie: Cool it, you two! We’ve got a column to write.
Dahlia: Anyway … so, you see, Kaisha, I told Thomas I didn’t want to play with him by using my body language. When he still didn’t leave me alone, I hissed at him. But when I needed Mama’s help to get my claw un-stuck, I meowed to her because, well, humans are kind of obtuse and need vocal cues.
Siouxsie: We’re quite sure that your kitten’s absent meow is not a result of being spayed at a young age.
Thomas: It’s very common for animal shelters to spay or neuter animals as early as 7 weeks of age so that they’re already “fixed” by the time they’re ready to be adopted. Even vets in private practice are doing more early spay/neuter surgeries.
Dahlia: Some people have raised concerns about whether it’s safe for kittens to be neutered so young. They were particularly concerned about cats’ urinary tract development. Cats — particularly male cats — can be prone to urinary blockages, which are life-threatening emergencies.
Siouxsie: But the Winn Feline Foundation did a long-term survey on cats that were fixed at a young age, and to date, the researchers have found no health risks resulting from early spay/neuter. (If you’re interested, you can read the full report here.)
Thomas: There were no significant differences in urinary tract development in cats that were neutered early.
Dahlia: Cats that were spayed or neutered early tend to be longer and taller than cats who have the surgery at a later date.
Siouxsie: So, Kaisha, we hope we’ve put your mind at ease about your kitten’s missing meow.
Thomas: If she does find her (human-hearing-pitched) meow someday, we’d love to know when it happens.