Tag Archives: cat voice recognition

Q&A: Do cats have language?

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.

Q&A How do cats see themselves and us?

Q: Do Cats Think They’re Humans?

A: I’m not exactly sure where you got this idea, but it’s a rather simple answer: No.

So why bring it up? Because there’s this ridiculous related notion that cats think that we are strange-looking cats. By that logic, they would have to think that their dog friends, bunny friends, and other animal friends are also strange-looking cats, but we know they don’t.

Cats are best at reading the body language and faces of other cats, so they recognize cats as being like themselves. They communicate using the same methods (scent and body language mostly) with other cats, but not with animals, including humans, that are not cats.

Cats generally only meow at humans, not at other cats. Meowing doesn’t mean anything to other cats, but we talk to them, so they are trying to communicate with us on our level, which is vocal. They soon learn what types of meows get them what they want. And some cats, like Burmese, “talk” more than others.

Kikiyo has several words for different things, and has names for the other cats, me, and my daughter. She loves to talk with us, and she has about 10 different words for different kinds of water (water in the fountain, water in a cup, water from the sink, cold water, water on the floor, etc.). She does not converse with the other cats.

Cats mostly see us as equals. They are small, and don’t have the ability to get their own treats, water, or food most of the time, so they let us know when they’re hungry, thirsty, bored (and want to play), they want petting or cuddles, or anything else.

And they thank us in so many ways. Whether it’s bringing gifts, comforting us when we are upset, hurt, or down, and so many other ways. Each cat is an individual, just like people. Some are smarter, some are more empathetic than others, some have issues with anxiety, and on and on. They know we are individuals as well.

Q&A: Does the cat remember me?

Q: I’ve moved, and my new church has got a church cat. I’ve met him a few times, had some nice interactions. But I wonder. He must see a lot of humans at the church. How many of us can he actually fit into his tiny little kitty brain? Does he remember me meeting to meeting?

A: Cats have fantastic memories. Their brain structure is much more similar to ours than a dog’s brain. If you have a cat that spent its formative years (2–7 years) in a particular place, then you move, then you take the cat back to that place a decade later, it will remember all the paths it used to walk, where to get food, whom to avoid, and whom it can sweet talk (or meow) into giving it last night’s chicken leftovers.

To learn more about cats’ memory, read my post on the topic here.

Cats have an advantage that we don’t: they rely on smell (which is closely tied to memory, even in our minds, though we don’t use it when we meet people), as well as body language, the sound of that person’s voice, facial recognition, and other distinguishing characteristics to remember individuals. It doesn’t matter if it’s another cat, a dog, a possum, a human, or a goat. They use all those things to remember each individual. Every time. We rely heavily on sight coupled with a short word (the person’s name) to try to remember the people we meet.

A cat is much better equipped to remember you as an individual than any other person in that church.

Q&A: Can Cats Recognize Their Owners in Photos or Videos?

Cats rely a great deal on smell to identify individuals. That’s not the only factor, but it’s a main one. Many photos are also too small, and the idea of having a small, flat piece of paper being a representation of the real 3D world is not a natural assumption.

Cats do recognize faces. In a study published in Journal of Vision, it was shown that cats, but not dogs, can recognize the faces of their owners. They are better at recognizing the faces of other cats, but they can pick out their owner’s face from a line-up of life-sized head shots 54% of the time. That’s pretty good.

Cats also rely on body language, the way a person moves, and other things to recognize individuals. But most of them do recognize their owner’s voice.

A 2013 study published in Animal Cognition showed that cats also recognize their owners’ voices, and can tell them apart from stranger’s voices. Their hearing is much much better than a dogs’ or humans’ hearing (PDF), so they aren’t usually fooled into thinking the sounds from TV, computers, radios, etc. are real when they are adults. But they can still recognize the sound of their owner’s voice, or things like their mother cat’s call.

I had a video of a cat we fostered. Her name was Freya, but we called her Bunny. She was 6 months old when we began fostering her, and it turned out that she was already pregnant. (More on that later.) She was Stiles’s mother. The video had audio of Bunny calling her babies, and also a bit of Stiles’s sister, Cleo. When Stiles heard the video, he ran in, and started pawing at the speakers, and was in great distress because he couldn’t find them. I put him on my desk, and he watched that video 3 times, but I decided it might be doing more harm than good, so I took him in the other room and played with him until he was sleepy.

The video: https://youtu.be/5NwINsxG13c

Our oldest cat, who is 18, is strongly bonded with my daughter. She spends most of her time in my daughter’s room. My daughter went out of town with my sister a few weeks ago, and Kagome wasn’t doing well. So my daughter recorded some videos, and I put on one of her unlaundered shirts, then played the video. Kagome listened very carefully. I played it again, and she started purring immediately.

And finally, two of my cats, Kikiyo and Stiles, will come running every time they hear elephants, whales, or David Attenborough.
kiki-stiles-tv