Owners regularly hold conversations with their cats. Not only is this therapeutic, but it’s a great bonding tool that will help you to feel closer to your cat. But while conversing in your best baby voice seems like the logical thing to do, can cats really understand what people are saying?
It’s thought that cats can understand between 25-35 basic human words. These include “food”, “eat”, “no”, “sit”, “stay,” and “stand”. They can also understand the word “no”, but in order for your cat to understand what each one means, an element of positive reinforcement training is required. Higher-pitched sounds work well to encourage your cat to come to you, but unfortunately, they can’t understand or respond to human meows.
While the ability of domestic cats to communicate with humans has not been thoroughly explored, we’ve done some research on what human voices sound like to cats, what words they can understand, and whether they understand human meows.
Table of Contents:
What Words Can Cats Understand?
As stated above, research shows that cats can understand between 25-35 words. This includes their name and any words that may benefit them. Some examples of these words are “food”, “eat”, and “no”. All of these serve a purpose and cater somewhat for your cat’s needs.
Cats may also understand command words, like “sit”, “stay”, or “stand”. Though this isn’t possible without being properly trained to associate these words with actions. This is because cats can’t assess the meaning behind them.
The delivery of the words is usually more important than the word itself. For example, cats can feel threatened by a word that’s delivered in a loud or aggressive tone. It doesn’t matter if that word is friendly or designed to reward. Similarly, a word that’s delivered using a soft, gentle tone will result in affection from your cat.
While the amount of words that cats can actually understand is far fewer than dogs, who are able to recognize closer to 100 words, cats can vocalize more sounds to communicate with humans. As reported in Scientific American, kittens have around 9 different types of vocalization, while adults have around 16 different types. This implies that their relationships with humans influence how cats ‘talk’.
It’s important to remember that cats’ mouths and vocal cords are physically incapable of producing the same sounds that humans make. This means it’s pretty much impossible for them to speak any type of language.
Can Cats Understand Human Meows?
When you’re home alone with your cat, how many times have you meowed towards your cat to try and get a reaction? You don’t need to feel silly in admitting this – it’s actually more common than you might think. It’s also the perfect way to build a connection with your cat, even if it doesn’t give you much back in return.
To answer whether cats can understand human meows, it’s good to understand why they meow in the first place. And the answer really is simple: cats only meow if they want something from a human. This is likely to involve food, water, a litter change (cats don’t like doing their business in unclean trays), attention, affection, or protection from any kind of danger.
Scientists that have studied the phenomenon of meowing believe that this shrill cry has evolved over time as a way to communicate with humans. Cats don’t meow at each other but communicate through scent, body language, facial expressions, and touch. They’ve learned that they can’t communicate with us in the same way as other cats, so they only meow to get their owners’ attention and to alert them that they need something.
However, if you’ve tried meowing at your cat to get a reaction back, we’ve got bad news. Cats can’t respond to human meows. This is because they’re not evolved enough to reply. And if you find your cat meows back to you while you’re attempting to communicate with them, it’s unfortunately not because they’ve understood your call. Instead, as mentioned above, it’s asking you for something.
So, cats can’t understand or respond to human meows. But there are many ways to tell what your cat is thinking through their own language. Here are some ways that you can interpret how your cat is feeling:
- Cats will usually greet someone using a short sound.
- If you’re away for a long time or your cat is generally pleased to see you, it’ll let out a lengthy meow.
- Your cat will request food or water using a medium-length meow.
- A long meow represents a more insistent demand for something.
- If a cat is dissatisfied, you’ll hear a low meow – you’ll definitely know when it’s not happy. If it gets louder, it needs something urgently. This will probably involve food, water, or a litter change.
- A cat will purr to indicate that it is happy or craves attention and affection from you.
Do Cats Understand Their Names?
A recent study in Scientific Reports details how a team of researchers, led by Saito, a cognitive biologist at the University of Tokyo, used a habituation-dishabituation method to investigate whether domestic cats could discriminate against human utterances. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, Saito discovered that cats recognize their owners’ voices, and wanted to explore whether they were able to distinguish their own names.
Using 78 domesticated cats from both ordinary households and a cat café, the researchers discovered that the cats they studied were able to discriminate their own names from general nouns, even when the words spoken were by people unfamiliar to them.
While the team found that 9 of the 11 cats responded to voice stimuli by moving their ears and heads, the study doesn’t really prove your cat actually understands the concept of a name. Instead, a cat might have become more familiar with its name than other words used in the test, displaying a stronger response as a result.
When calling your own cat’s name, using a consistent pitch and tone will help your pet recognize that you’re directly addressing it.
Sounds That Make Cats Come To You
If “Here, kitty, kitty” doesn’t engage a response from your cat, it might be time to try something new. Understanding the sounds that make cats come to you is a great skill to learn. Not only can you get their attention when you need them, but it can make putting them in their cat carrier or preventing them from escaping so much easier.
Many people think it’s impossible to train a cat, but this is surprisingly untrue. It’s important to remember that dog-training methods won’t work, as our feline friends need the motivation to stick around. Here are some top tips to start getting your cat’s attention using sounds:
Use Higher-Pitched Sounds
A cat’s hearing is better suited to high pitched sounds. To get its attention while calling its name, start using a higher voice than your voice naturally allows, and keep repeating it.
Over time, whether it understands its name or not, it’ll start to understand that you’re calling out to it directly. And if you have more than one cat, try to use slightly different pitches for each one so that your cats can differentiate between the names.
Clicker Training with Human Sounds
Clicker training, when used in combination with positive reinforcement, is an effective way to teach your cat to come to you using sounds. If you’re not familiar with what a clicker is, it’s a small plastic device that’s used to signal when an animal has done the right thing.
The easiest way to start is by getting your cat to associate the sound of a click with a treat. This allows it to acknowledge that it’s done what you wanted it to, giving it an incentive to carry on.
However, as not many people have a clicker lying around, you can easily train your cat using human sounds instead. Any sound, whether it’s a whistle or a click of the tongue, can be used in place of a clicker and will do exactly the same job. Just make sure you stick to your chosen sound for consistency.
To put this all into context, cats are more likely to come over when you use high-pitched sounds. It’s possible to train a cat to understand what you’re saying to them, but you’ll need to use techniques that work specifically for cats, as using dog-related techniques are too simplistic.
Do Cats Understand No?
Cats don’t understand “no” from a young age. It takes time, patience, and effort to teach them how to understand when you’re telling them to stop misbehaving. The problem with using the word “no” alone is that your cat has no way of understanding what you’re trying to tell them.
Cats will hear that you’re making a loud noise and will get confused by it. Even if you manage to get them to stop misbehaving there and then, it’s likely they will continue to display bad behaviors when you’re not there to tell them off. This is because there is no context behind why you’re upset.
The next time your cat starts scratching your sofa or climbing the curtains, say “no!” in a loud, firm voice. Pick it up, moving it away from the spot of misbehavior while saying “no” a couple more times. Repeating this will help it to get used to the sound so that it can associate this with being told off. This will also make it easier the next time you need to say it.
Consistency is key, so keeping up with a regular training routine will alert your cat when it is misbehaving. You need to be definitive with the sound you make so that it knows that it can’t get away with its bad habits.
You might need to keep at this for a while before your cat starts to understand, but expect to see results within 3 to 4 weeks. Positive reinforcement is a good technique to use. If your cat starts behaving well when you’ve asked it to, give it a tasty treat as a reward.
Another way to signify “no” to your cat is to look it directly in the eye when it is misbehaving and hiss. Mimicking feline behaviour is an easy way to shut down bad behaviour. It can also stop it from repeating it in the future, as this is an action that all cats understand.
So to summarize, cats do understand the word “no”, but only after they’ve been taught to do so by their human. Uttering a meek “no” to try and stop bad behaviors before shouting at your cat out of frustration is a sure-fire way to cause anxiety and stress in your feline friend.