Japanese Research Reveals How Many Words Cats Can Understand

Japanese Research Reveals How Many Words Cats Can Understand

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Dogs and cats are the most popular pets worldwide. Cats have been hanging out with humans for thousands of years. There’s lots of research on how dogs communicate with humans, but very little research on this topic regarding our feline friends. With this goal in mind, a researcher in Japan sought to understand how many words cats can understand. Here’s what they found out about feline vocalizations.

Read my lips

In this study, Atsuko Saito, a biologist at the University of Tokyo, believed that felines understood human words just like dogs. Earlier studies found that felines recognize their owner’s voice, but she wondered if felines could understand human words. The research involved 78 felines exposed to four neutral words that sounded similar to the cats’ names. They measured the cats’ reactions when calling their names or the neutral words. When the felines heard the neutral words, they ignored them, but when the cats listened to their name, they perked up. Their ears twitched, and heads turned. They did this same study at a cat cafe but with fewer positive results. It’s thought this was because too many visitors called the cats’ names.

Observers suggest the study doesn’t entirely prove felines understand their name as a label themselves. They offer that when the cats hear this word, they know they’ll get food or cuddles as a reward. This is called associative learning, which all animals do.

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Still, it’s thought that felines learn just as well as dogs. They’re just not as quick to show off what they’ve learned. Researcher Saito says even her kitties don’t always come when she calls them. She finds their indifference cute.

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In other words, the responsiveness of our feline friends varies and connects closely to their perception of facial and environmental cues. However, some feline experts estimate that your kitty can learn between twenty and forty words.

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What do cats say?

As a kitty owner, you learn the meaning of your cat’s vocalizations, actions, and other sounds. Here are the intentions of the ordinary things cats do.

Purring

Purring isn’t understood, but it’s usually how your kitty expresses contentment. Some kitties purr when they’re hurt, feeling hungry, or nervous. It could be that there are different purring frequencies for each scenario. Because of the frequency ranges, it’s thought that purring is a cat’s way of self-soothing.

Meowing

Meowing is a unique form of communication cats use only with humans. Kittens do meow when they’re hungry. Otherwise, cats don’t meow around other cats. Your cat meows in different pitches and loudness. One meow is a greeting, while another is asking you to cuddle them. Felines meow when they’re hungry or feeling scared. Scientists believe that a cat’s meow is a somewhat manipulative behavior cats use to get what they want. Kitties learn what noises are the most effective to get their owner to do what they want.

Certain cats meow more than others.

The loudest and most profuse meowing breed is the Siamese. Of all breeds, these beauties take meowing to a new level. Besides meowing for water and food, Siamese will meow about everything under the sun. They’re regular chatterboxes. It’s their way of communicating with you. If you own a Siamese, you may feel overwhelmed by their capacity to meow.

Growling, Hissing, Spitting, and Yowling

Cats don’t meow at other cats, but they use different vocalizations to communicate with other felines. If your kitty is angry, it’ll growl or hiss. Sometimes they even spit. Felines do this to other cats to warn them to stay away. If your kitty makes a yowl, it’s to show distress. Male cats use this sound when a female is in heat.

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Ears

How your cat positions their ears is another way they communicate how they’re feeling. When they point their ears forward, it shows they’re alert and curious. If your feline is happy if they point their ears up. Flattened ears show fear or irritation.

Tail

Your cat’s emotions are fully displayed in how they hold their tail. An upright tail usually means friendly, but a stiffly held tail shows your feline is on alert. When your cat tucks their tail, it shows fear or submission. A cat puffs out their tail when they’re angry or upset. They do this to intimidate. Twitching their tail back and forth like a whip is a sign of irritation. When your pet wraps its tail around herself, she feels loving and happy.

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Do you talk to your cats?

It would seem that cats can learn some human words. The more you communicate with your feline, the quicker they’ll remember. If you use a raised tone in your voice when you talk to your feline friend because a lower voice tone is associated with aggressiveness or displeasure. Here are some simple ways to talk to your cat.

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Listen

Watch and listen to what your cat is saying or doing. Does the meow sound upset or happy? Different meows include:

  • Short little meow: Greeting
  • Several meows in a row: Excited greetings
  • Drawn out meows: This is a demand
  • Low pitched meow: Your cat is unhappy; they’re mad
  • Low-pitched or drawn out meow: Begging

Watch

It’s important to learn your cat’s body language. Watching your pet, you’ll learn what they’re trying to tell you through specific vocalizations and body movements. Watch for

  • Tail movements
  • Dilated pupils
  • Blinking eyes
  • Staring eyes
  • Ear movements
  • Rubbing against you
  • Head movements
  • Kneading with their paws
  • Sniffing
  • Licking

How do you speak cat language?

As a cat owner, it’s important to know how to speak in a way your pet understands. The words you say to your cat aren’t as important as your tone and body language. If you’re saying “No” in the same tone as “Good kitty” they won’t understand. Be consistent. Be sure your tone matches your words.

Correct

If you need to correct your cat’s behavior, use the correct tone and body language. For instance, if your cat is biting you, say, “No!” and give your feline a stern face. You can point your finger at them, too, for emphasis. Your kitty will get the message loud and clear.

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Praise

To praise your feline, use a high-pitched smiling voice to call them. You can use your hand to motion for them to come simultaneously.

Go away

If your feline is bothering you for attention, but you’re busy, you may need to let them know they need to stop. You can say, “Stop!” and gently nudge your cat away. Because your cat doesn’t have respect for your space, they may keep trying to get your attention, so you may need to repeat this several times. Your cat will eventually take the hint and stalk away. Be sure you communicate you’re not interested in your tone and body language. Otherwise, you’ll send mixed messages that your cat will interpret as affection.

When all else fails, use cat words to communicate with your feline. Your kitty will respond to you hissing or making a spitting sound when you say, “No.” They’ll understand that you aren’t happy about what they just did.

Most of all, be consistent. Use the right tone, hand gestures, and facial expressions to go with your words. Don’t confuse your pet with mixed messages. The more you communicate with your cat, the better your relationship will be.

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What words can you teach your cats?

Teaching your feline simple words isn’t a trick. It takes consistency and repetition. Your pet can learn many words. Here are a few words all kitty parents can teach:

  • No
  • Stop
  • Down
  • Good kitty
  • Come (pet’s name)
  • Treat
  • Dinner

Keep your words simple and directed to your feline friend. When they do what you say, show them praise. Be sure to use the exact words over and over. If you change the terms, it will confuse your pet. Be sure your tone goes along with the words you’re saying. Practice over and over. Before you know it, your pet will obey these commands. Other tips for training your pet, include the following:

  • Don’t punish your kitty for not coming: It takes lots of practice. Pets, like humans, get distracted and confused. Be sure you’re clear and make coming worth their while by giving them a treat when they obey. Punishing your pet will backfire and make them afraid of you.
  • Reward them: When your cats do what you ask. Give them a big cuddle or a treat.
  • Make these commands fun: If you use these commands correctly. Your feline will love obeying.
  • Keep your training times short: If you practice too long a kitty will lose interest. Keep these times short and fun.
  • Practice: It’s worth repeating…practice over and over.

Final thoughts on how cats can understand a few human words

Even though kitties learn as well as dogs, there’s been little research on how well kitties understand human communication. This study in Japan is just the beginning of learning about their vocalization and ability to understand human words. Of course, felines communicate with their ears, tails, body movement and eyes. Your pet gets their message across loud and clear, especially when they want food or a cuddle.

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So, how many words does your cat understand? Probably more than you know, but that’s the beauty of these fluffy felines. They always keep you guessing.

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Jennifer is a wife, mother, and grandmother. Before she started writing, Jennifer was an elementary school instructional assistant, home educator, and missionary. She has a BA degree in elementary education from the University of South Florida, Tampa. She's a member of Redeeming Grace Church in Fairfax, Va. When she's not writing, she's hanging out with her family and dog, Sam. Member of: American Christian Fiction Writers Fellowship ACFW; Capital Christian Writer Fellowship CCWF

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