“You won’t believe the day I had, Genevieve! I’m so glad to see your pretty kitty face! Look how beautiful you are. How soft and loving. Only you understand me, Genevieve!” What Cats Hear
Your cat’s amber eyes glint and widen. She jumps on your lap and arches her back. She kneads your thighs and meows engagingly, but does she have any inkling of what you are saying?
Most pet owners would argue that their cats understand much of what they say, but can we know for sure whether your cat knows the meaning of “dinner” or “toy” or “get off the kitchen counter?”
What Cats Hear
“Although there aren’t really any definitive studies on what specific words cats can actually understand, [scientists] have recently done a study in Germany on a dog that was scientifically shown to understand 200 words,” says Nicholas Dodman, DVM, author of “If Only They Could Speak” and “The Cat Who Cried for Help.” “I think cats are very similar in their ability to understand words, and I have no doubt that cats can learn words,” says Dodman, director of the Behavior Clinic at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Mass.
One of his residents used clicker training (a training method that associates a reward with a clicking sound) to teach her cat several words, including “up,” meaning to jump on a counter, “down,” meaning to jump back down, and even a command for running through a tunnel.
“I taught my cat, Cinder, to sit,” Dodman says. “I’m no genius, and it only took me three days using a clicker. I can walk up to her, look at her, she looks at me with her big yellow eyes, and I can say, ‘Sit.’ After a moment’s hesitation, the back end goes down, then she looks at me with an expression that says, ‘Well, I’ve done it, so what’s my reward?'”
The question, however, says Dodman, is whether the cat really understands the word. “In my opinion, cats, like dogs, can associate meaning with words, especially short, choppy, consonant-heavy words easy to distinguish from other sounds,” Dodman says. “Spit out words like ‘out’ and ‘sit’ and ‘kitty.’ Articulate, don’t mumble. I believe cats can distinguish these words when set in isolation and associated with something. Bury them in a sentence, however, and you will lose them.”