I have owned cats for over 60 years. Between them and their vets, I have learned a great deal about how they tick.
Cats Don't Understand "Human"
Cats cannot understand the words we use to communicate the things we want them to know. They don't even know what the word "no" means, even though they seem to respond to it. The truth is that they are not responding to the words, they are responding to the tone of your voice and your body language.
Cats hear the anger, joy, sweetness, dislike, or whatever else you show when you are speaking to them. They see how you move and they see what you have in your hands. They can smell anger and fear and they can also smell food if you have it in your hands. When you speak, a cat watches and listens for clues about what you might be saying. They do not, however, understand what you are saying.
How to Show Cats What You Mean
Showing a cat what you mean is difficult because cats use tail movements, eye movements, and lip-licking to communicate with each other. That is how they understand things. Speaking to them requires that type of communication.
What to do:
- Speak softly if you are trying to comfort the cat, and loudly if you are angry.
- Move slowly to attract a cat and fast if you wish to shoo them away.
- Offer your open empty hand for the cat to smell if you want them to get to know you, and keep your hand away from them if you don't want them to get to know you.
- Raising your hand as if to strike something will cause the cat to run from you or get aggressive because they believe you are angry.
- Having equipment in your hands like walkers, canes, and purses could frighten the cat because they are often hit with these things by people who don't want them near.
- Moving as if to kick a cat will cause them to run to avoid being kicked.
Patience is a winning virtue.
How to Avoid Scratches and Bites
Some cats are aggressive by nature. Watch for signs such as crouching, hiding, hissing, and swatting.
These are signs your cat is afraid:
- This cat will scratch or bite if you continue to approach them.
- Recoil as if they expect to get hurt if you touch them.
- Hide under the bed or in other dark, cramped places.
Don't be angry at them, however, since they did warn you. To calm them or approach them in these cases:
- Stay calm and offer them a treat or food they like.
- Place the food close but not close enough for the cat to scratch.
- Don't approach, let them come to you.
- Give your cat time; patience is a winning virtue.
- Give them treats and gentle pets when they do respond.
How to Deal With Injured Cats
Injured cats will bite and scratch because they are hurt and are afraid. These animals, whether they are your own or an unknown animal, can be dangerous. This is the only protection they have now because of their injuries. If the cat is yours:
- Try to carefully pick them up using a towel or blanket.
- Get them to a vet as soon as possible.
- Speak softly and do your best to comfort them.
- If the cat warns you not to touch, do your best not to touch that area.
- Blood is always a sign of injury, but some injuries do not bleed. There will be other signs such as limping, not eating, inactivity, and so on. Treat them as noted above.
- Do not offer food to an injured cat unless it is your only option. Food can bring the cat to you even when they are injured, but they should not eat until seen by a vet.
If the cat is not yours:
- It is best not to approach a cat you do not know, even if they are injured.
- Feral cats may have medical issues such as feline leukemia or rabies, which can infect humans and other cats if handled.
- You may have to call animal control to get assistance when collecting a cat to take them to a vet.
- If you touch a feral cat, immediately and thoroughly wash your hands.
A Summary of Cat Communication
- Cats respond to tones and actions, not words.
- Soft tones and gentle movements get better responses.
- Cats will warn you of their intentions, so heed their warnings.
- Approach a feral cat with extreme caution or not at all.
- Feral cats may have rabies or other illnesses.
- Approach an injured cat with care and understanding because they might bite or scratch.
- Call Animal Control if there is an injured cat that you cannot approach safely.
- Remember that items in your hands can be, and will be, considered weapons by a cat you are approaching.
- Cats need patience.
© 2020 Cheryl Simonds
Cheryl Simonds (author) from Connecticut on August 12, 2020:
Thank, I am glad you liked it. I hope it helps others.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on August 09, 2020:
We have always enjoyed our cats. Your advice about approaching feral or injured ones is excellent.
Cheryl Simonds (author) from Connecticut on March 24, 2020:
I can't argue with you on that point.
Sp Greaney from Ireland on March 23, 2020:
Good tips for newbie cat owner here. I've had a pet cat since childhood and they are the best pets ever.
Cheryl Simonds (author) from Connecticut on January 29, 2020:
Thank you so much Pamela, I was hoping that it would help people understand how cats hear us. Thank you for your comment.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on January 28, 2020:
I have had several cats over the years and I loved them all. I think your advice is excellent in this article.
2. Show her you love her through the power of touch
Kitties are tactile creatures. They thrill to a scratch behind the ears or under the chin. If you are wondering how to bond with your cat, touching them is an excellent way to start.
Go slow when you start petting a cat. Cats want to trust you first before they move to the next step. Let a cat take a sniff at your hands or slither around your ankles before you go in for a full-on body massage.
Once the cat appears to be at ease with you, you can let him or her rub his cheek against your fingertip.
When you have established a certain comfort level with your pet, you can move on to stroking their entire body. Cats love to be massaged around their neck and shoulders, belly and base of the tail (but usually not the tip of the tail).
Stroking a cat has been known to lower not only cats’ blood pressure but that of humans. It’s incredibly soothing and can lead to a meditative, almost- Zen state for the both of you.
Stroking your cat’s body will also allow you to be in tune with her body in case there is anything wrong. You may notice matted fur which needs to be tended to by a groomer. You might also find ticks which need to be removed or lumps which might require a trip to the vet.
How Do You Talk to Your Cat?
How often do you meow or purr at your cat? Are you more likely to talk to your cat in “cat” or in “human”? Occasionally I find myself purring back at my cat Lovie, if she has wandered up to say hi to me while I’m working and is busy purring in my direction. Sometimes I’ll give her a little meow, too. Until I read a new study on cat-human interactions, it hadn’t occurred to me to notice that although I “talk” to Lovie using cat sounds, I never talk to my dog Bella using dog vocalizations: I don’t ever bark or growl at Bella. I talk to Bella all the time, but in human language.
Apparently, I am not alone. Many cat owners use cat-like vocalizations when interacting with their feline friends, while people are more likely to talk to their dogs in human-talk, as if their dogs are actually furry people while their cats are, well, just cats. This little tidbit is one of the interesting things I learned from Péter Pongrácz and Julianna Szulamit Szapu’s paper, “The socio-cognitive relationship between cats and humans – Companion cats (Felis catus) as their owners see them,” forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science.
Pongrácz and Szapu surveyed 157 Hungarian cat owners about their cat-human relationships. The survey was aimed at gaining a more nuanced understanding of how humans and cats interact, raising some of the same questions that have been asked about humans and dogs: What kinds of communications do humans and cats use in their interactions? How well do people seem to understand what their cats are trying to say, and how closely are cats paying attention? How well are owners emotionally matched with their cats, and what kinds of cat and human factors seem to influence how successful the friendship will be?
Cat-lovers generally may be feeling a bit overlooked. Research into the cognitive and social skills of dogs has exploded over the past decade or two, promoting the idea that dogs are the ideal human companion, having co-evolved with us and possessing a whole range of social-cognitive skills that seem directed specifically at communicating with and understanding humans. Dogs read our facial expressions and adjust their expressions to elicit certain emotional responses from us some dogs are skilled at following human pointing gestures and directional gaze and listening to the inflections in our voice. In our typically myopic way, we have decided that the dog has evolved for us, to become our boon companion. The dog is the uber-pet. But are dogs really the only species to have evolved a special set of socio-cognitive skills to facilitate interactions with humans?
The emerging science of cat cognition offers plenty of evidence that cats have highly developed socio-cognitive skills. Unlike dogs and dog-human interactions, however, which have been extensively studied, much less is known about who cats are, what skills they have developed to understand and communicate with humans, and how to ensure the success of human-cat relationships within the home. Using some of what we’ve learned already about dogs, researchers have begun to explore human-cat communication and the human-directed cognitive capacities of cats. Like dogs, cats may form attachment bonds with owners, follow visual cues (such as their owner pointing toward an object), follow human gaze, and recognize and respond to auditory communication from their owner.
Pongrácz and Szapu offer some ideas about the human-cat relationship, particularly cats’ socio-cognitive abilities. To be precise, the researchers offer cat owners perspectives on what cats do and how they interact. The central question guiding the research was to find which features of the cat-human dynamic paralleled dog-human relationships, and which were exclusive to cat-human interactions. (How accurately cat owners assess cat behavior, how much they know about cat behavior, and what the cats themselves think of their human owners remain questions for future study.) Overall, and not surprisingly, most owners consider their cat a unique and important member of the family and assume their cat to have well-developed social-cognitive skills.
Here are some of the specific findings:
- Women consider cats to be more empathetic and communicative than men do, and have more intense connections with their cats. (Question for further study: Do women consider their cats to be more empathetic and communicative than men?)
- Cats were very good at following the visual signals of humans, such as pointing with an arm or gazing in a certain direction. If a cat is the only pet the in household, owners are more likely to use pointing signals with the cat.
- One of the unique features of the human-cat interaction was the use, by humans, of cat vocalizations. Although many people talk to their dog, and often use a kind of playful baby-talk, dog owners rarely bark and growl at their dog. Yet many cat owners meow and purr to their pets. Younger owners are more likely than older owners to imitate cat vocalizations. Owners who initiate play with their cat more frequently are also more likely to use cat-like vocalizations. (Another question for further study: Do these human-emitted cat vocalizations communicate important information to cats and do they enhance the cat-human relationship? Or do our meows and purrs simply annoy our cats?)
- Owners who react to the meows of unfamiliar cats are more likely to initiate interactions with their own cat.
- People with higher levels of education were less likely to use cat vocalizations and more likely to talk to their cat “like a human.” Pongrácz and Szapu hypothesize that people with higher education levels were more likely to “show stronger anthropocentric attitude to their pets,” resulting in less frequent imitation of vocalizations.
- Most respondents agreed that it was not easy to assess their cat’s inner state. In particular, people felt uncertain what cats were trying to communicate with their meows, other than that the cat “wants something.” In contrast, people are fairly good at assessing the emotional content of dog vocalizations, especially barks.
I’m glad to see more attention being paid to the inner lives of cats and to the workings of the human-cat interactions. Just as the study of human-dog interactions and dog cognition has the potential to make a significant contribution to dog welfare, so too does research into the human-cat bond bode well for pet cats. The better humans and cats understand each other, the better our chances for successful long-term friendships. This is particularly important for cats, who are more likely than dogs to wind up being relinquished to shelters and whose chances for rehoming are typically less good.
For more on talking to your cat, check out this link, which has some really useful information.
Dogs and cats learning to 'talk' through innovative soundboard
Have you ever wanted to know exactly what your dog is thinking? Pet owners around the country are starting to get the answers, with help from a device teaching animals how to talk.
"I really wanted a smart dog because I was pretty invested in the training process," said Alexis Devine, from Tacoma, Washington.
Devine knew early on she wanted to test the boundaries of communication with her Sheepadoodle, Bunny.
She was inspired by speech pathologist Christina Hunger, who went viral for teaching her dog how to talk with an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) system. These devices are typically used in speech therapy to help non-verbal people to communicate.
"I thought when we get our puppy, I have to try this out, and I bought the buttons long before we got Bunny," said Devine.
Devine started small, purchasing a few sound buttons from Amazon. "Outside" was Bunny's first word. Devine pressed it every time they left the house, and soon enough, Bunny was pushing it on her own to go outside.
"She uses 'park' and 'beach' constantly, 'outside' quite a bit. She uses 'walk' a lot, 'ball', 'tug', and 'hippo' are really popular. 'Love you, mom,' are really popular," Devine said.
Now, with over 40 buttons, Bunny is starting to form sentences.
"One of her longest sentences to date was, 'Home. Concerned. Soon poop, yes,' which felt very much like a toddler," Devine explained. "Like, 'I have to poop right now. We're in the house. I don't want to be.'"
In addition to narrating what's happening around her, Bunny communicates what she wants and how she feels.
"A couple of days ago she pressed 'help' and then 'ouch' and put her left front paw on my hand, and I started looking between her paws and found a foxtail," Devine recalled.
An invasive grass, foxtails are razor-sharp and can burrow into a dog's paw, causing infection.
"Who knows what's actually going on here, but I think if it's possible for our animals to tell us when and where they are in pain. It could revolutionize veterinary science," said Devine.
Devine is now beta testing the FluentPet soundboard, a hexagonal tile grid created specifically for animals. The company combined ideas from speech-language pathology and cognitive science to develop intuitive arrangements designed to help owners and pets remember word locations.
Everything Bunny says is recorded on video and sent to researchers studying how dogs understand words. The company is working with the Comparative Cognition Lab at UC San Diego, which studies the cognitive behavior and abilities of children, adults, and a variety of non-human animals.
"Does it matter if they start as a puppy or if they start later in life? Does it matter what breed they are? Does it matter what gender they are?" wondered Devine.
They'll also be looking at processing time. Devine says their small group of beta testers is learning responses can take anywhere from 10 to 40 seconds.
Bunny is now talking to people around the world.
On TikTok, @what_about_bunny has amassed over 3 million followers and nearly 300,000 on Instagram.
Thousands have ordered sound buttons through Amazon or FluentPet to teach their dogs, and cats, how to talk.
One talkative feline, @billispeaks, is capturing the hearts of thousands on social media. She's often spotted pressing her favorite word, "mad."
"I think what I would like the takeaway for everyone to be is--not 'Oh my god, our dogs can talk' but 'Oh my god, our dogs have been saying these things all along and we haven't been listening,'" said Devine.
Devine says she remains skeptical. While Bunny's words make sense some days, they don't on others. She hopes they'll learn more as new dogs are studied.
"It's too early, but I'm really excited to see what comes out of it," she said.
Either way, she says it's been an incredible tool to bond with Bunny.
For those unsure where to start, FluentPet created a community-built guide with tips and tricks, do's and don'ts, and how-tos for modeling the most common first concepts.
The cat’s total body posture indicates everything from confidence to fear or submission. To understand the full message, the body talk must be read in conjunction with what the eyes, ears, tail, fur, and vocalizations express.
A relaxed and happy cat would have ears point slightly forward, eyes relaxed, and whiskers are also pointed forward. The more you pay attention to your cat the easier it will be to read its body language and learn what they're trying to tell you.