Cats talk. They don’t talk to each other much, but they do talk to us. It’s an interesting dynamic that tells us a lot about what they learn about humans when they live with them.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I talk to mine as though they were humans. Full sentences, nicknames, what happened at work, how was their day, the lot. Many of us do, and in the back of our minds we have a little voice that tells us that the cat doesn’t actually understand us, but it makes us feel better.
As humans, we’ve come into a world where sound has a very specific meaning. We use it to make words and the words can mean something as general as ‘nice’ or as precise as ‘erinaceous’ (something which resembles a hedgehog). We’re used to being able to convey complex information in a short space of time thanks to the development of sounds that have meaning to us.
It’s only natural, then, that we don’t think cats understand us, because cats don’t speak in words and never learned how to.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t understand us.
Imagine for a moment that your world is full of sound, but no words. Would you still ascribe meaning to the sounds around you and try to make sense of what those sounds could mean to you personally?
In part, I think that can be what makes bringing a new cat home so difficult. You don’t speak the same language yet. Cats can be very astute animals and they will identify the sounds you make by their impact on their lives. If you routinely make the same sounds and the same outcome follows, you are teaching your cat a language. My cat knows when I greet her, and greets me in return. She knows when I say, ‘come on’ that I mean for her to follow me. She knows if I ask, ‘what’s the matter?’, I’m looking for her to communicate a need to me. I know these things because of how she interacts with me after the words