Can Cats Understand Words?

Many cat owners learn to communicate with their beloved pets simply through body language. While most people can get along just fine this way, a lot of owners can’t help but wonder, can cats understand words? After all, dogs are known to recognize commands, and even respond positively or negatively to words like “walk,” “treat,” or “vet.”

But are cats intelligent enough to recognize words, too?

A lot of people wish they could communicate better with their cats, but the truth is, you can! Although it depends on the cat and the age you begin training, it’s entirely possible to expand your cat’s vocabulary!

Cats are capable of understanding human language, but they usually only learn about twenty to forty words. The speaker’s body language, tone of voice, and other environmental factors can also affect your cat’s understanding of certain words. Deliberately teaching your cat words from a young age makes it more likely to develop a larger vocabulary.

Orange tabby yawning.

Can Your Cat Learn Words?

When it comes to animal intelligence, a lot of people assume dogs are the only animals who can understand words and commands. It’s true that dogs are typically better at comprehending language, and they usually understand about 100 different words on average. Cats, on the other hand, are still perfectly capable of understanding words, as well.

A gray tabby kitten staring.
Cats will look for visual and tonal cues to understand you.

The difference, however, is that cats don’t really care as much as dogs do. Even though studies have shown that cats can recognize words, they often choose to ignore their humans.

Furthermore, while dogs can recognize certain words in a variety of contexts and inflections, cats rely more on tone and other factors to recognize words. This means that your cat might recognize the word “food” if you say it in a certain tone or with specific body language, but it might not be able to pick the word out in a regular conversation.

Can Cats Recognize Their Names?

Studies have shown that cats are more likely to respond to their names than other random words. However, it’s unlikely that cats understand what a name means. While we humans use names as a part of our identities, cats don’t use specific vocalizations to refer to themselves or others.

Instead of viewing their names as a marker of their identity, cats typically associate their names with an impending event. This is because owners typically call their cats’ names as they’re about to feed them, play with them, or otherwise engage with them. As a result, many cats will turn around or even vocalize in response to hearing their names.

Can I Teach My Cat Words?

Most owners inadvertently teach their cats words by repeating words in certain contexts. For example, saying “food,” “dinner,” or something similar while feeding your cat means your cat is more likely to associate those words with eating.

If you start while your cat is young, and pay careful attention to the language you use around your cat, then it’s more likely you’ll be able to expand its vocabulary.

A gray tabby kitten sitting on a book.

One tip is to use simple language and condense your vocabulary into as few words as possible. It’s not reasonable to expect your cat to understand that “food,” “eat,” and “kibble” all mean about the same thing. Instead, choose one word, and repeat it whenever it’s relevant.

Another tip to keep in mind is varying your tone and body language. Since cats tend to only recognize words in the same tone and context, bringing more variety can help broaden your cat’s understanding.

More recently, a speech-language pathologist named Christina Hunger has taught her dog, Stella, to communicate by pressing buttons. She recorded her own voice saying a variety of words, including “eat,” “walk,” and even emotions like “mad,” or “concerned.”

Through hundreds of videos, Stella has shown to use different combinations of buttons to ask for different things, demonstrating a much more complex understanding of language than we ever thought possible for dogs!

This exciting new idea has caused dog owners across the globe to try it out with their own pets, to varying degrees of success. Surprisingly, some owners have even had success with teaching their cats to use buttons, as well!

However, it’s unclear whether the use of these buttons actually indicates the understanding of language, or if it’s simply a conditioned response. As this is a relatively new phenomenon, studies are only just now being conducted, and it will likely be some time before we get any definitive answers.

Still, if you’re determined to turn your cat into the next Einstein, it can’t hurt to try it out yourself!

Can Cats Learn Commands?

When we think of animals doing tricks or commands, we usually think of dogs. Cats are much harder to teach commands, but it’s not due to a lack of intelligence. While dogs have been selectively bred for obedience and an eagerness to please, cats are much more selective. At the end of the day, a cat is highly unlikely to do something it doesn’t want to.

Still, it’s entirely possible to teach your cat to learn commands through lots of training and positive reinforcement. It takes longer and requires more patience than training dogs, but with the right motivation, you can teach just about any cat to speak, roll over, sit, shark a paw, or even play fetch!

Conclusion

Cats are highly intelligent creatures, and most learn about twenty to forty different words throughout their lives. Through more vigorous training from a young age, that vocabulary can be expanded or even doubled! Even though cats are capable of recognizing certain words, they are much more selective about responding than dogs, as they have a habit of ignoring people.

Language comprehension is, unfortunately, a poorly-researched field, but more and more scientists are becoming interested in cats (and dogs) who are learning to communicate by pressing buttons. Even though we don’t have all the answers yet, a lot of people suspect that cats are much smarter than we give them credit for.

References

Merola, I., Lazzaroni, M., Marshall-Pescini, S., & Prato-Previde, E. (2015). Social referencing and cat–human communication. Animal cognition18(3), 639-648. DOI 10.1007/s10071-014-0832-2

Saito, A., & Shinozuka, K. (2013). Vocal recognition of owners by domestic cats (Felis catus). Animal cognition16(4), 685-690. DOI: 10.1007/s10071-013-0620-4

Saito, A., Shinozuka, K., Ito, Y., & Hasegawa, T. (2019). Domestic cats (Felis catus) discriminate their names from other words. Scientific reports9(1), 1-8. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-40616-4

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