Your cat knows you’re talking to it, but does it understand you?

Scientists are beginning to understand human-feline communication, but there’s still a long way to go

Laura Camón
A woman works from home in the presence of her cat.Eva Plevier (Reuters)

María unlocks her door. She had a long day at work, but she’s finally home. As usual, María’s cat greets her affectionately in the hallway. The first thing María usually does is fondly pet her cat, but today she’s so tired that she just plops down on the sofa without even taking off her coat.

The cat stares at María. “Meow.”

María responds in that tone often reserved for babies, “What’s the matter, Leia, did you miss me? Of course, you did, of course you did. How could you not miss me when you’ve been alone all day. Come here, let me give you some cuddles.”

A typical example of human-cat communication has just taken place. María spoke to her pet very differently than she would speak to an adult human. She used a higher, more variable pitch, and her phrases were shorter and repetitive. She spoke slowly and asked questions that she instantly answered herself. But the cat only meowed. While dogs bark at humans and other dogs, cats only meow at people and rarely meow at their own species.

Humans and cats adapt their communication styles to each other, but does it matter? Does María understand her cat’s meowing? Does Leia recognize that María is talking to her? Well, scientists have been trying to answer these questions recently.

There are around 600 million cats living with people around the world. They are very popular pets, and not just for practical reasons. They are valued for their ability to communicate and form emotional bonds with humans. In fact, cats have the most complex vocal repertoire of any carnivorous species.

Although there are probably more, the vocal repertoire of the cat is wide, and up to 21 different vocalizations have been described in the scientific literature. The most popular vocalization for communicating with humans is the meow. Wild cats will meow on occasion to mark territory or attract a mate, but domesticated cats do it constantly when interacting with people.

This is why scientists think that meowing may be a product of feline domestication and socialization with humans. Perhaps meowing is more effective at capturing our attention, which may provide some benefit to the cat. However, this doesn’t mean that we are able to interpret meows well.

In 2020, a study by the University of Milan set out to determine whether people could differentiate between audio recordings of cat meows in three different situations: waiting for food; being groomed by a human; and isolated in an unfamiliar environment. The study participants did poorly, and only managed to do better than random with one type of meow – the “I want food” meow.

People get frustrated when a cat meows insistently and the context doesn’t help them to know why. Well, there’s good news – it’s much easier when you’re the cat’s owner. Familiarity with our pets helps us understand them better. Women are also better at this than men, which is consistent with previous studies indicating that women tend to be more perceptive when it comes to interpreting emotions, whether human or animal emotions. A 2019 study found that humans can identify cats’ affective states from subtle facial expressions, and that women are better at it than men.

What are they thinking?

Figuring out what cats are thinking when we talk to them is proving to be a challenge for scientists because cats just don’t like to be examined in laboratories. As soon as a cat leaves its comfort zone, it gets so stressed that it become practically impossible to conduct a valid study. Experiments in the cat’s own home where it feels safe and relaxed is often a better approach, which is what a recently published study did to learn whether cats can determine when a human is talking to them. The researchers placed speakers in a room with a cat, and played audio recordings of different people saying things like: “Do you want to play?”; “How are you?”; and “See you later!”

Sometimes the recorded phrases were spoken with the typical intonation a person uses with a pet. Other times, the intonation was typical of human-to-human communication. The cat reactions were filmed and analyzed for movements like different ear rotations and changes in eye direction. The study found that cats are able to differentiate between the two types of intonation and know when they are being addressed, but only if it’s their owner speaking.

Another study conducted 20 years earlier demonstrated similar results. Several people were asked to interact with an unfamiliar cat. They found that speaking to the cat didn’t persuade it to come closer, and was even counterproductive if a male was speaking and using a lot of imperatives. The only factor that had a clear effect on how much time the cat spent with the study participant was how much or little the person liked cats. Although every study participant seemingly demonstrated the same behavior, the cats could identify subtleties in the body language of cat lovers.

The science of feline-human communication is still in its infancy, so not much should be made of one study involving a single cat. Extrapolating the behavior of one individual to an entire species is not prudent. Likewise, the study with the audio recordings only used 16 cats. Much more research is needed before we can draw more definitive conclusions about how much cats and humans understand each other.

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