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Living with cats can feel like a mystery. You talk to them, but you're never quite sure what they're thinking. Do cats understand words? Can cats understand humans? If you wonder what your kitty hears when you talk to them, you're not alone. Let's see what science has to say about this feline enigma.
Do Cats Understand Words?
If your cat doesn't come when you call them, it doesn't necessarily mean they're ignoring you. It could be that they're reacting nonverbally and you just aren't noticing it. Cats lack the cognitive skills to interpret human language, but they recognize when you talk to them. To put it another way, cats comprehend human language in the same way that we understand meowing. It's similar to how you interpret your cat's language by "reading" how they arch their back or swish their tail.
Cats may not process human language in the same way that humans do, but studies show that cats recognize and, in some cases respond to, human vocalizations, gestures and expressions — depending on whether they feel like it, of course.
Can Cats Understand Humans?
Scientists have only scraped the surface in terms of understanding feline cognition. However, in the past several years, researchers have made exciting discoveries about the cat brain.
In an article published by Animal Cognition, researchers noted that the cats they studied responded when their pet parents said their names. The cats mostly responded to their humans' voices through orienting behavior, such as ear movement and head movement, rather than through communicative behavior, like vocalization and tail movement.
You can do a similar study of your own at home: Closely observe your cat while you say their name. They may pivot their ears, tilt their head to the side while looking at you or both. A chatty cat might respond vocally, but as this study shows, cats generally use nonverbal communication to respond to their human.
How Do I Communicate With My Cat?
The authors of the Animal Cognition study noted in The Independent that "cats, unlike dogs, have not been domesticated to obey humans' orders. Rather, they seem to take the initiative in human-cat interaction." Keep this in mind the next time your cat doesn't respond when you call their name. Try not to take their snub personally; it's just their independent spirit.
But despite scientific evidence that your cat's the boss, it's important to regularly engage in conversation with your pet. Talk to them during petting sessions, while you're folding the laundry or at bedtime.
Regularly interacting with your cat using positive vocalization and gestures — such as smiling and speaking in an upbeat tone of voice — will reinforce the bond between the two of you. It also provides insight into how your kitty uses their own cat language, both verbal and nonverbal, to converse with you. Although humans and cats don't speak the same language, there's no denying the special relationship between a cat parent and their feline friend.
Christine Brovelli-O'Brien, Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, STEAM educator, professional member of the Cat Writers' Association (CWA), and a devoted pet parent. She writes about pets, education, and STEM-y stuff. Her work also has appeared in NIU STEM Read, Fit Pregnancy, What to Expect When You're Expecting Word of Mom, and Care.com. Find and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @brovelliobrien