Do Cats Understand Words? A Vet Explains

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Have you ever called your cat’s name and had them look back at you blankly? This is a familiar occurrence for most cat owners and often leaves us wondering if our feline family members understand us.

If you’ve ever wondered what your cat hears when you talk to them, you aren’t alone. ‘Do cats understand words?’ is a common question from cat owners, and it turns out that they do, but not in the same way that we do.

Quick Overview

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Cats are able to recognize certain words but do not understand or interpret language in the same way humans do

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Cats recognize the sound of their owner's voice and respond to the sound of their own name

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Cats associate words with a tone of voice and body language rather than understanding their meaning

So, let’s dive a bit deeper into how cats interpret language, so you can better understand how to communicate with your cat.

Do Cats Understand Words?

Cats do not have the cognitive skills to interpret human language, but they are able to recognize that you’re talking to them.

Cats do not have the cognitive skills to interpret human language, but they are able to recognize that you’re talking to them. Think of it this way – cats understand human language in the same way we understand meowing; we know they are talking to us and can recognize certain tones or calls, but we don’t know for sure what they are saying to us.

Cats are able to recognize and respond to human voices as well as gestures and expressions. Well, only if they choose to, of course.

Scientists have made some interesting discoveries about the feline brain and cat behavior in recent years, but we are still only scratching the surface.

In an article published by Animal Cognition, researchers discuss their findings from a study looking at whether cats respond when owners call their names. In this study, the researchers played three different human voices whilst their owners were out of the room. They found that the cats responded with orienting behavior (head and ear movements), rather than communicative behavior.

This was the same even with the cat’s owners. What they found was that most cats responded with a lower magnitude to the third voice than the first, but their response increased again to their own owner. This tells us that cats are able to distinguish between humans using vocal cues. It’s fascinating stuff and gives us valuable information on how cats respond to our voices.

Also Read: 7 Common Cat Vocalizations And What They Mean

Do Cats Know Their Names?

It makes sense that cats respond to their name because usually, it results in something positive such as food or playtime.

A new study by the same scientists who made the discovery that cats are able to distinguish between humans using voice, also found that cats respond more strongly to their own names than to other words.

They found that when neutral nouns were played to the cats, they did not respond, known as habituation. However, at the sound of their own names regardless of whether it was called by their owner or a stranger, the cats responded with orienting behavior – head and ear movements.

It makes sense that cats respond to their name because usually, it results in something positive such as food or playtime. Neutral nouns tend to have no benefit or punishment, so cats will ignore these. This fascinating study shows us that cats are able to discriminate between the content of human sounds based on phonemic differences.

Of course, this research doesn’t prove that cats actually understand the concept of a name, or that they can understand the concept of other words, it simply proves that cats have the capability for associative learning and interpretation of sounds that result in an action such as reward or punishment. It also doesn’t mean your cat will always come when you call!

Less than 10% of cats studied actually move toward the sound despite responding to it by turning their head and moving their ears. One scientist found that cats are just as good as dogs at learning, but that cats are less keen to demonstrate what they’ve learned to their owners!

Any cat owner will know that our feline family members are highly independent, and simply haven’t been domesticated to respond to our human orders.

Also Read: Why Does My Cat Ignore Me?

How Many Words Do Cats Understand?

It is thought that cats understand around 20-40 human words, and some might recognize up to 50.

It is thought that cats understand around 20-40 human words, and some might recognize up to 50. However, it’s perhaps more appropriate to say that cats are able to associate and distinguish words rather than understand their meaning.

Our feline family members associate words with the tone, action/outcome, and body language when they are connected to feeding, petting, or playtime. The words that are repeated most frequently are the ones our cats are most likely to respond to.

Also Read: How Do Cats Communicate With Each Other? A Veterinarian Explains

How Should I Communicate With My Cat?

Although we know that cats don’t understand language in the same way we do, we do know that they respond positively to their owner’s voices.

Although we know that cats don’t understand language in the same way we do, we do know that they respond positively to their owner’s voices. And whilst they might not do as we tell them, it’s still important to engage in conversation with your cat!

Talking to your cat whilst petting them, feeding them, or at any other time during the day helps to strengthen and reinforce your bond. Although cats don’t fully understand us, and we don’t know what all their meows mean, no cat owner can deny that chatting with your cat helps create a special relationship and bond.

You should always talk in a gentle and positive tone, never harsh. You can also use positive gestures such as smiling. You’ll notice your cat pricks their ears up and responds to certain tones and words, especially if they are associated with positive actions such as feeding.

Whilst cats might learn to recognize words such as ‘dinner’, ‘good boy’, or ‘no’, the words you use aren’t actually as important as the way you speak. If you say ‘no’ in the same tone as ‘good boy’, your cat won’t understand, so you need to make sure your tone matches the word and keep it consistent.

Always reward your pet for positive behavior and responses to commands, and with patience and consistency, you absolutely can teach cats to understand and respond to short and easy commands!

The use of harsh tones, raised voices, or stern words can quickly be associated with punishment and are likely to frighten your cat. If repeated consistently, this can cause your cat stress, or even lead them to be frightened of you.

Also Read: How Cats Choose Their Favorite Person?

Do Cats Like Being Talked To?

Your cat should be relaxed and happy to hear your voice, and we know that talking to our cats strengthens the bond we have with our pets.

Our feline family members absolutely do like being talked to. You might notice your cat responds positively to your voice by pricking up its ears, lifting its head, meowing, purring, rubbing around you, or head-butting.

Your cat should be relaxed and happy to hear your voice, and we know that talking to our cats strengthens the bond we have with our pets.

Final Thoughts

Scientific research has also proven that cats are able to recognize and respond to their own owner, as well as understand or learn their own names.

Cats are highly intelligent creatures, and whilst they lack the cognitive ability to understand words and language, they are able to develop responses to certain words through association with certain actions.

Scientific research has also proven that cats are able to recognize and respond to their own owner, as well as understand or learn their own names. But the way our cats respond varies and depends on their perception of environmental, facial, and vocal cues.

Talking to your cat is very important to strengthen your bond, and through using body language and different tones of voice your cat will soon learn to associate certain words with outcomes such as feeding or playtime.

Also Read: Why Does My Cat Attack My Feet?

Frequently Asked Questions

How many human words do cats understand?

Cats understand around 20-40 human words, and scientific reports have found that they can recognize the sound of their name. But cats associate words and distinguish between them through tone of voice and body language, rather than understanding the meaning of a word.

What do cats hear when we talk to them?

Cats hear our voices and pick up on our tone, different sounds, as well as the body language we use when we say them.

Can cats learn human language?

Cats cannot learn to understand human languages. However, they can learn to understand certain words through associations – for example, they will understand that ‘dinner’ means mealtime if this word is always followed by food.

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About Dr. Joanna Woodnutt, MRCVS

Dr. Joanna Woodnutt (MRCVS) is a small animal veterinarian and writer who is passionate about helping owners to learn more about their pets in order to improve animal welfare. She loves to write and wants to empower owners to make the best decisions for their pets by giving them all the information they need. In her spare time, she takes consultations on the small island of Guernsey.

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