Tag Archives: memory

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: 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.

How Good Is a Cat’s Memory?

Cats have excellent memories. A lot of research has been done on cats’ memory. This body of research shows that there is little difference between reference material stored in the cats’ brains and humans’ brains. When compared to dogs, research has proven that cats have close to 200 times more retention.

Neurons are important in memory and learning, and cats have nearly twice the number of neurons that dogs have. The way that memories are encoded means that each neuron stores a part of a memory, and when the right combination of neurons is activated, the cat will recall a memory.

In the short-term, cats can remember things for about 16 hours. If it’s important enough for the cat to remember it later, the memory can last the rest of its life. Cats do a great deal of learning and remembering from 2–7 years of age, much like children and teenagers are learning machines. Cats must be socialized before they are 2. Just like humans, these early stages of life determine a great deal about what the cat will be like when they’re older.

For instance, if a cat isn’t around humans a lot when it is young, even if it is friendly and likes humans, it will not meow or vocalize to humans the way that kittens who are raised with humans will. I have a super cuddly cat who was a stray for his formative years, and he is just like our other cats except that he doesn’t meow.

Our 11-year-old female has lived with her littermate on and off over the years (he belongs to my sister, and we have shared houses on and off). Even when it’s been several years since they’ve seen each other, she and her brother always act like they were never apart. Cats seem to be able to remember their friends, whether it is another cat, a human, a dog, etc. for many years.

They also remember paths they have walked a lot in the past. They remember where to find food in a place where they have not been in 10 years. If it’s important to a cat, whether emotionally or a necessity, they will remember it.

Unfortunately, with a similar brain structure to humans comes the pitfalls. Elderly cats can be prone to dementia, as well as other neurodegenerative diseases. So it’s important to keep a cat active, and keep its mind engaged to guard against such ailments.

Side note: Although we sometimes compare qualities and physiology of cats to that of dogs, they are completely different animals, and it’s a lot like comparing an elephant to a giraffe. We here at LCD love dogs as well, and nothing we say should be used to try to prove that one is better or worse than the other. We are only using these comparisons to demonstrate that you can’t view cats and dogs the same way. They are very different.