What Do You Think? Can Cats Understand Human Language?

Cat criticizing a human's spelling

Can cats understand human language? It would prove beneficial if they truly could, but then, how well do you understand your cat’s language? Here we are, two species who try to communicate without really being able to translate all the messages we pass to each other.

Though your cat knows when you are talking to him/her, it’s highly unlikely that kitty knows what many of your sounds mean. Your cat does not usually meow to other cats, unless it’s one of their kittens. However, he has learned that he can get a human’s attention with a meow. He knows you try to communicate, and so does he, but translations must depend on many other factors besides the sounds both species make.

How Do Cats Interpret Our Speech?

Though recent studies show that your cat does know when you talk to him, his interpretation of your meaning might or might not prove the correct one. It depends on your body language — your tone of voice; your gestures; your facial expressions; what actions you might take.

Perhaps your cat can understand around 20 to 40 human words; sometimes up to 50. Their interpretation of these human sounds might stem from association with the word and some action you take.

Yowling cat

For example, after each meal, I regularly give Mocha 4 pieces of kibble designed especially to help clean his teeth. Mocha really likes them, and if I tell him it’s time for his “toothbrushes”, he knows that he will now receive them, and he runs to the place where I give them to him.

I don’t think he understands the meaning of “toothbrush”, but he associates that kibble with the word.

It’s called associative learning. Here’s a cute example: When I lived in Kodiak, the neighbor’s cat, Tiger, loved my cat, Carlos, and would come in through the cat door in the morning as soon as he detected movement. My neighbor said I could discourage him with a spray of water when he came in.

Well, that worked. He’d leave immediately. However, he’d come right back in. Moreover, he then hated me because I’d sprayed him. I couldn’t pet him or pick him up without earning a hiss or a claw scratch. So, when I wanted him outside, I’d sweep him out the door with the broom, saying over and over, “out cat!”

Carlos learned fast. He found that if the door was closed and he wanted out, he could go to it and in his loudest kitty voice, say, “Ouoo! Ouoo!” He couldn’t add the “t” but he understand that the word became the key to opening the door. Of course I’d let him out.

How Does A Cat Respond To A Human Voice?

Cats can distinguish between human voices, studies show. However, they may respond only to their human and not to any other. Recordings of voices elicited a response only when their human spoke. Also, if their human speaks to another human, the cat will ignore the conversation. It’s different if their person addresses them.

Cat talking to voice in phone

Research indicates that women prove more perceptive when it comes to interpreting emotions, whether animal or human. A cat’s facial expression can give clues as to what the cat thinks, and women seem more skilled in this interpretation.

Do you talk to your cat in a little-girl voice? I do. Cats seem to respond better to this higher pitch. I believe it’s because that high, squeaky voice sounds to them more like the voice of another cat, so they respond. It’s not what is said; it’s how we say it.

Always talk in gentle and positive tones, not in a scolding or harsh way. Smiling helps. Pay attention to how the cat responds to certain tones and words, especially when associated with positive actions, including feeding them. How you say something proves far more important than what you say.

A friend told me of an experiment that someone she knew tried on her cat. In her high and sweetest voice, she told the cat he was evil and ugly and she hated him. The cat purred and rubbed against her. It wasn’t the words she used, but her sweet-sounding voice caused the kitty to respond with such affection.

This example points to the value of talking to your cat, as the animal responds positively to their owner’s voice. Talking to kitty while you pet him, feed him, or just wish to let him know you care will help strengthen and reinforce your bond.

White cat with mouth open like it's saying something
It’s my last comment on the subject

My research tells me that cats understand 20 to 40 words, and sometimes up to 50. This understanding comes from repetition and perhaps accompanying action, just as Carlos and his learning how to say “Ouoo!”

Rewarding good behavior and positive responses helps create understanding. If you remain patient and consistent, you can teach your cat to understand and respond to short, easy phrases.

Will Your Cat Come When He’s Called?

Does your cat know his name? Most likely, especially if you use it when talking to him. He might not come when you call him, but he knows you call. If you’re watching him, you can detect the movement of an ear or a turning of the head. He knows you call but simply chooses not to respond.

Interesting, that my research spoke of one study that showed that when interacting with an unfamiliar human, the cat might not be persuaded to come closer, especially if a male spoke as if giving orders. Also, if the person did not like cats, the animal would show much less willingness to respond.

A Research Difficulty

One reason that we haven’t learned more about cat – human communication stems from the difficulty of performing studies on cats when they become placed in an unfamiliar environment. The cat can become quite stressed, which does not bode well for research.

Cat sitting in box, facing back

Conducting studies on the cat when he is in his familiar home environment can produce much better results. I’m wondering if perhaps cats in cat cafes might eventually become subjects of study, as the cat will get acclimated to that place.

A new study demonstrates that pet cats will regularly modify their own vocalizations when speaking “cat” to their owners, and they also purr at a higher pitch. My Mocha demonstrates the truth of this information.

He started out as a feral cat. When I first got him, he did not purr, or if he did, he had the volume turned down a lot. Now, however, that has changed, and he purrs much more loudly. It’s a nice change for me.

And, though he knows his name, as he will react to it, the response may be quite subtle, and he will not come when called unless he feels there’s something in it for him. If I call him and shake his kibble container, I’ve always been able to find him.

Cats may act like they don’t care, but they aren’t indifferent to us. They simply suffer from the same limitations as we — neither of us has yet learned to discipher the other’s language completely. How sweet it will be when we can truly understand each other. Time and research may get us there.

References I used for this post:


2 thoughts on “What Do You Think? Can Cats Understand Human Language?”

  1. My Truffie usually comes when I call her… unless it’s after dark and she wants to stay outside longer!!! I think cats learn some human words but expect you are right that the situation governs the understanding more than the word. Great article and very informative.

    • Elaine, I’m so glad you liked the article. I know my cat knows his name, but he chooses whether to respond or not. Wish I didn’t have to resort to rattling the kibble container to get him in. That’s the choice he made. I’m in real trouble if he ever stops liking kibble. You are fortunate that your cat comes when you call her.


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