Q: Why does my cat understand so many of the words that I say and I understand almost none of his vocalizations?
A: There are a lot of factors at play here, so if you want a TLDR answer, you’re out of luck.
First, some basics:
Some cats are smarter than other cats. And there is a lot we don’t know about animals and cognition. And because cats in particular can’t be bribed reliably with food or a toy, it’s often difficult to do some classical kinds of tests to study how they think, so the research we do have on cats is severely slanted toward cats who are empathetic (they understand that you want something from them, and they want to please you) and very smart (they understand that you want something from them, and that makes them curious about it). So there is a lot we just don’t know about how they think.
But there are several things we do know. I’m up with new research on cats and cognition, and it’s some amazing stuff.
So here are some basic factors that will change how much of your language your cat understands and how much of his language there is to understand.
Some cats are more vocal than others. Cats that were strays or feral for their formative years (before age 2), will likely never meow. Meowing is a holdover from kittenhood, when it was important for them to vocalize when they were hungry, in danger, etc. because they don’t have control over the classic ways cats communicate (body language and scent). Once older kittens realize that these vocalizations work on humans too, they have made the connection, and will likely meow at least a little when they want something.
There are generally three types of cats: talkers, non-talkers, and learned talkers.
Non-talkers are cats who either don’t vocalize at all or vocalize very little. A cat that doesn’t really vocalize much isn’t likely to be putting much thought into it other than the fact that you sometimes do a particular thing if he makes a noise.
Talkers, like Burmese, can vocalize a lot. I have an Abyssinian-Burmese, Kikiyo, who will carry on entire conversations with me, and she has actual words for several things. She has a large vocabulary. Kiki has words that are very like our words. For instance, I call my daughter “Bonna”, and Kiki calls her “Waah’Wah”, my daughter calls me “Mom” and Kiki therefore calls me “Waaw”, outside is “Aw-Why” and so on. So, since she is a very talkative cat, and listens to us, and understands hundreds of human words, she does often have words that are similar-sounding to ours. But some of her words sound nothing like our words. She has at least 10 words for different kinds of water. She has a word for water in a cup (Awak – the k is almost silent, it’s like a glottal stop), water in a glass bowl (Araah), water in a plastic bowl (Araaaaaya – she doesn’t like it in a plastic bowl, so this comes with a fussy tone), and the water in the fountains (Nawa – her favorite).
I’ve only been documenting her language for the past two years. Before I became disabled, I worked a lot, so I didn’t spend as much time at home. I knew she had some words and names, but it’s only recently that I’ve really appreciated how much of an effort she makes to communicate.
There are talkers who only say a few things, but they are meaningful to the cat. Sometimes it’s not so much about words, but about the tone.
We talk to our cats a lot. That, I think, is a big factor in how much a cat predisposed to vocalize a lot builds an actual vocabulary. Our 8-year-old male was a stray for his formative years, and he just recently started meowing a bit.
Learned talkers, who are generally very smart, and were raised from kittenhood with a talker cat, learn the importance of verbal communication with humans. So it’s a learned behavior. They don’t talk as much, but they can learn what works on humans. So it’s mimicry. Our 2-year-old (his birthday was January 27th) mimic is a smarty pants. He’s the smartest cat I’ve ever known. And he does want to communicate, so he borrows words from the 11-year-old. So it’s part nature, part nurture.
So, to sum up and answer your question, if you talk to your cat a lot, and your cat makes all kinds of conversational sounds at you, it may be that he does have at least a rudimentary language. Try to keep notes if you aren’t sure.
Most cats usually understand several words we say, especially ones that are most important to them, like treat, food, walk (if you walk your cat). play, bed time, etc.
Some cats understand a whole lot more of our language than you might think. They are also able to process both the word you are saying and the way in which you are saying it, so simply saying in a light, chirpy voice that it’s bath time will still send your cat running to hide under the bed.