My cat Target “talks” but he’s more a tactile kind of cat. He jumps up and gives me a purry-furry head-butt when he’s happy. My other cat, Guido, is chattier. It may be because he grew up with a gang of cats, or it’s just his nature. Either way, our Guido chats up a storm all day long.
In addition to cheerful everyday messages that say, “I’m home!” and “Where’s my lunch?”, our junior cat has all kinds of special sounds. When he is especially happy, usually when we’re scritching his tail, his favourite tickle spot, he does an imitation of a pigeon that is absolutely classic.
The cats and I spend most of our days together, and although I tend to talk to them in English, I also purr and meow. I’m now so fluent in pigeon that the other human in the house can’t tell if it’s me or Guido talking.
However, when it comes to interpreting cat, I’m not always accurate. There are times when I mistake an, “I’m home!” for “My water bowl is empty!” Usually it’s when my mind is elsewhere. If I look at my pet, body language is enough to orient me. The one thing I am rarely wrong about is the emergency call. Guido has a particularly high-pitched meow that signals panic. When I hear it, I go running.
This week, I was on the phone when I heard Guido’s alert. It was a friend, not business, so I simply said, “Emergency! Call you back!” and went racing downstairs. My poor pet was on the wrong side of the window and the dustbin men were coming up the road. They’re a nice bunch of people but Guido is absolutely petrified of that truck. The second he hears it, he dives for cover. Being locked out, you can imagine the panic.
When I recounted the story later, my cat friends understood but I did get some funny looks, including the comment, “Surely you don’t really think your cat talks? Or that you understand him?”
That got me thinking: what do the studies say? Do cats communicate in a uniform way? And do we humans understand what they’re saying? Luckily, I found a study that looked into that.
Nicastro and Owren, two researchers at Cornell University in the United States, recorded 12 cats in five different situations. The kitties were recorded meowing excitedly when they saw their dinner being prepared, complaining while being brushed too vigorously, sweetly demanding a kiss from their owner, complaining about being stuck behind a door or window, and shouting in a frightened way when being shut in a car.
The researchers then asked people to listen and explain what the cats were saying. None of the people knew the cats who’d been recorded. Some participants were cat lovers and some not.
In real life, cats tend to meow repeatedly. Thanks to the magic of recorders, participants heard just one isolated meow in one experiment and a more natural flood of meows in another.
The results showed that the people interpreted the correct context of the meows significantly more accurately than chance, which means they were understanding cat. Everyone found it easier to identify a flood of calls rather than a single call. However, cat lovers were better at identifying single calls than those who had little or no kitty experience.
The authors were actually a bit disappointed with their results. Me, I think they did amazingly well. However, I would have considered two things. First, this study assumes that all cats make the same sounds for the same circumstances. They don’t. Also, it assumes that cat emotion is very black and white. It isn’t.
Target and Guido have very different voices and attitudes. Target is your typical drama cat: shrill, excitable and loud, no matter what. Guido has a baritone call for the most part and it takes a lot for him to get excited. He’s a quiet kind of a cat.
When Target sees food he loves, he purrs and meows loudly at the same time. When Guido sees food he likes, he just purrs.
Their attitude to Twinkletoes, a battle cat from down the street is different, too. Target is completely hysterical when he sees this cat. His battle cry, “See you, pal! I’m going to have you!” when he confronts Twinkletoes is indistinguishable from his, “Oh, my Cod, that evil cat is walking down the street!” when he spies his enemy from a position of safety like the upstairs window.
With Guido, I know exactly when he’s about to fight (it’s a low rumble that gains pitch and ends in a scream) and when he’s merely shouting abuse from a distance (a quiet growl and some hissing).
I think cats do talk and I think their people understand them pretty well. That experiment is fun but I’d like to see it rerun with people listening to their own pets, or ones they know well. Bet the scores would go through the roof.
What the cats may be saying
While cats may be like people – in that they all have their own voices and habits – there are certain broad kinds of behaviour that are shared by many. If you’re trying to reach out to a pet, consider these common tell-tale signs.
“I’m interested.” Your pet is looking from you to the food bowl, the treat, the bird at the window, the badminton game on television and back again. The ears and tail are up.
“I love this!” The eyes are half-closed, or opening and closing slowly, a sign cat lovers recognise as a cat kiss. There’s purring, maybe a little kneading and if you come close, you get a head-butt. The tail is straight up, possibly with the tip quivering out of sheer excitement.
“Stop that!” The ears are back, indicating temper, and the tail is down and flicking from side to side from growing annoyance. Your pet may grumble, growl or hiss. If you keep doing this, you will get a smack with the paw.
“Hey! Give me a paw, here!” As with the interest, your pet will look from you to the offending obstacle, like a closed door or empty water bowl. The tail’s up but the meow is breathy, high-pitched and repeated. Your pet’s whole body will be tense. Keep calm and follow orders.
“Help! Help! Rescue me!” The ears are half-back, the eyes are wide open, there’s panting, and your pet is running around like a mad thing, absolutely petrified. The meow is a shriek or wail. Be careful! Your cat may be too afraid to think clearly. If he scratches or bites, that’s just fear. Do not blame your pet!