How to Understand "Cat"

Knowledge of the feline language can strengthen the cat/owner bond. Learn to recognize the meaning in your pet's meows and actions.

By Marty Becker, DVM | Posted: Thu Jul 1 00:00:00 PDT 2004

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With a vocabulary of meowing, trilling and caterwauling, cats certainly have their own verbal variety. As a pet parent, you should consider learning the foreign language known as "Cat." In knowing it, you're destined to understand your feline family members at a deeper level.

"I believe cats are more vocal around us because they know that's the method [of communication] with which we're most comfortable," said Pam Johnson-Bennett, the author of "Hiss and Tell."

While cats don't have specific meows for specific contexts, they certainly can deliver messages loud and clear, according to a recent Cornell University study on interspecies communication conducted by Nicholas Nicastro and Michael Owren.

In a study of 12 cats, Nicastro and Owren recorded meows in five different contexts: food related (prior to regular feeding), agonistic (when being petted too vigorously), affiliative (when a cat solicits affection from an owner), obstacle (when the cat wants in or out) and distress (when a cat was taken for a car ride).

Then, under a carefully controlled laboratory setting, they tested people for their ability to identify the calls correctly, without the help of visual or contextual cues. Even the most experienced owners were unable to classify the calls accurately.

Nicastro and Owren felt this lapse in communication occurred because people often pick up on contextual cues in their analysis of a cat's sounds. So, they may think they know what a call means, while they are actually relying on contextual cues to make the determination.

Sharon L. Crowell-Davis, DVM, professor of Veterinary Behavior at the University of Georgia, concluded from this data that humans are often incompetent when it comes to interpreting cat meows. However, Crowell-Davis said that does not mean that cat sounds are indistinguishable.

Feline Adaptation
In a separate experiment, people were asked to rate meows based on how pleasant or urgent they sounded. The researchers found a clear trend: The more urgent the calls, the less pleasant they were to the listener. Also, the urgent calls were lower in pitch and longer in duration.

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Reader Comments

Janet    Bethlehem, PA

11/25/2011 7:41:52 AM

good article, thank you

winnie    pittsburgh, PA

12/19/2010 7:32:29 AM

in 1994 God blessed my family (via my daughters insistence) with 3 kittens. little did I know how much joy they would bring in my life! My daughters are now grown & have families of there own, and sadly 2 of the cats are now deceased. But Rajah the lone soldier left has shown true loyalty. I have several autoimmune conditions, in which I can become quite ill at times. It took me a long time to realize it, but Rajah faithfully stays next to me when I'm getting sick. leaving only to eat & use the litter box. when I'm on the mend, she eases off her faithful watch of me & returns to her normal routine, till the next flare. Therefore your article is right, cats can "read" humans, we only have to observe & love them just as faithfully as they love us

Kathy    Brooklyn, NY

2/25/2009 1:02:44 PM

My cats are always meowing for attention, especially at night. I have no idea what to do with them.

ML    Montoursville, PA

1/26/2009 8:03:36 AM

I do not belive that you can do this in a test with cats that are not your own. Not that you cannot read body language on a cat that is not your own, but if all you are hearing is a tape it seems like it is not possible. With that said I have very vocal cats, and I believe it is because they picked up that I am vocal with them. And I think they have learned or perhaps trained me well that I know what certain vocalizations mean but I also read their body language and sometimes they walk me to where they want me to go, say an extra snack or the treat cabinet. Who has who trained? hehe

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