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Do Cats Understand Words?

question mark cat

If you have ever called your cat and they looked at you blankly, you have probably wondered, does my cat understand words? I’m sure most cat owners have thought this. We often wonder if our feline family members understand us at all. As it turns out, cats understand us, but not in the same way, we understand each other.

  1. Cats can recognize certain words but do not understand or interpret language as humans do.

2. Cats do recognize the sound of their owner’s voice.

3. They respond to the sound of their name.

4. Cats associate words with tones of voice and body language.

5. They don’t understand word meanings as we do.

Can Cats Interpret Language?

cat staring

Let’s look at how cats interpret language, so you can better understand how to communicate with your cat. Cats may be intelligent and trainable like dogs, but cats aren’t interested in pleasing humans by obeying their commands like dogs.

Cats can’t interpret human language. They can, however, recognize when you speak to them. Cats understand words the same way we may understand our cat’s meow. You don’t know the exact word they are using, but you can understand what they want. Likewise, we can appreciate different meow sounds and take their meaning from that.

Cats can recognize and respond to human voices, expressions, and gestures. However, we all know that cats are fickle, independent creatures. If they don’t want to bother you, they won’t.  

Scientists have made exciting discoveries about the feline brain and cat behavior recently. However, this is still only scratching the surface of our understanding.

Researchers discuss their findings from a study published in an article by Animal Cognition that examined if cats respond when owners call their names. The researchers played three different human voices with the cat owners out of the room. They found the cats responded with only head and ear movements, showing they heard the voices. They found that most cats responded with a lower magnitude to the third voice than the first. However, their response increased again to the voice of their owner. This tells us that cats can distinguish between humans using vocal cues. It’s fascinating and gives us valuable information on how cats respond to our voices.

Cat looking at computer

Does My Cat Know Their Name?

Your cat picks up on tone, movement, facial expressions, and verbal associations when you talk to them. A study by the same scientists who discovered that cats could distinguish between human voices found cats respond to their names more than other words.

Researchers found that when neutral nouns were played for the cats, they did not respond. This is known as habituation. However, the cats responded with orienting behavior – head and ear movements at the sound of their names. This was so regardless of whether their owner or a stranger called their name.

Cats respond to their name because it usually results in good stuff, such as food or toys. On the other hand, neutral nouns tend to have no benefit or punishment, so cats will ignore these. This fascinating study shows that cats can discriminate between the content of human sounds based on the sounds we make when we speak. For example, an angry voice will make them run or ignore, but a cheerful voice will make them want to see what is happening.

The research doesn’t prove that cats understand what a name is or what any other word means. Instead, it proves that cats can learn to associate words and sounds with reward, punishment, or something they can ignore.

Less than 10% of cats studied moved toward the sound even though they responded by moving their ears or turning their heads. One scientist found that cats are as good as dogs at learning, but cats aren’t always in the mood to show their owners what they’ve learned.  

cats looking at computer

How Many Words Do Cats Know?

Cats might not understand the meaning of your words, but they do understand the importance of your tone.

It’s thought that cats can understand twenty to forty human words. Some cats may even know up to fifty words. It might be better to say they associate the words rather than fully understand them.  

Our feline family member associates words with tone, action, outcome, and body language when connected to feeding, petting, or playtime. The words they hear the most are the ones they respond to most.

girl talking to her cat

Should I Talk to My Cat?

Talking to your cat is a bonding experience and shouldn’t be ignored.

We know cats don’t understand language in the same way we do, but we do know that they respond to their owner’s voices. While they aren’t as eager as a dog to do as told, talking to them is still part of living with them and essential to building a lasting bond.  

Talking to your cat helps that bond. No cat owner can deny that chatting with your cat helps create a close relationship.

It would be a good idea to speak to your cat gently and positively. To reinforce the positive vibes, you smile and pet your cat. Use body language that says you enjoy their company. While you get their dinner, positive actions will help your cat associate whatever words you use as a positive thing, especially while preparing their meal.

Cats can learn to recognize words such as breakfast, good kitty, or no; the words you use aren’t as important as how you talk. For example, if you say no or stop that like you say good kitty, your cat won’t understand that no or stop is bad or that they should stop what they are doing because they will take it as a positive thing, not a negative thing.  

If you reward your cat for good behavior and the proper response to commands with patience and consistency, you can teach your cat to understand and respond to short commands.

Harsh tones, raised voices, or stern words can be associated with punishment. Naturally, this will scare your cat.

Does My Cat Like Being Talked To?

Cats enjoy hearing their owners’ voices because it comes from their person. Cats enjoy being talked to and may respond by pricking up their ears, meowing, purring, rubbing, or head-butting.  

Your cat should be happy to hear your voice and talking to them strengthens your bond.

Final Thoughts

Consistent tone and approach will help you train your cat to understand simple commands.

Cats are intelligent, and while they cannot understand words and language, they can develop responses to certain words through association with specific actions.

Scientific research has also proven that cats can recognize and respond to their owner. They can also understand or learn their names. However, the way our cats respond varies. Many of their responses depend on their perception of their environment and your facial and vocal cues.

Talking to your cat will strengthen your bond. If you use body language and different tones of voice, your cat will soon learn that your voice and actions mean certain things when a specific word is spoken.

What do you think about cats understanding words? Do you believe it? What is your take on your cat understanding what you say to them? Leave us a comment. We want to hear from you.

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