I originally wrote this blog and posted it on my old website back in February 2011. But since Saturday, June 4th is “Hug Your Cat Day“, and after a recent conversation about cat language, I thought it would be appropriate to re-share this blog…
Cats are bilingual. They use a “language” of their own, which they speak feline to feline. “Meowing”, as we as humans know it, doesn’t exist in a cat’s world. In fact, cats use a language of their own when speaking to one another, which doesn’t involve meowing. Rather, a cat will use mating calls and howls, chattering upon spotting prey, hissing to warn an enemy, or shrieking when hurt or terrified to “speak” to another cat.
Cats are also very quick to learn that humans don’t pick up on a cat’s scent, and we also don’t get their own unique cat language. Nonetheless, a cat also knows that he or she is dependent on a human, therefore, they use “Meow-ese” to speak to humans.
As an experienced cat owner, I’m going to share you some stories of my interactions and relationships with my cats, and how “Meow-ese” is a real cat language “spoken” to humans.
A Child and Her Cat…
I’ve been a cat owner my whole life. I chose my first kitten when I was 8 years old. My aunt’s cat had kittens in October 1993. Shortly after giving birth, the beautiful calico mother was hit by a car and was instantly killed. So my aunt bottle-fed 5 newborn kittens, 8 times a day, for almost 12 weeks, until the kittens were old enough to find homes.
As an 8 year-old little girl, I of course begged my parents for a kitten. My parents did agree, however, my father told me I would only be allowed a kitten if I improved my math grades in school.
Forget it. I was NEVER going to have a cat…
After several weeks my desk was nearly overflowing from a pile of graded math tests with giant, red numbers written on them: “52”, “55”, “42”… One day after school, my parents asked me where my math tests were, and I lied and said I didn’t know, when obviously I knew EXACTLY where they were: hidden in my desk at school. I knew if I brought home my very colorful math scores, I would never be able to take home my kitten.
Then, my parents called the school and spoke to teacher, who ended up digging out my hidden math tests one day while I was at recess. Before I got on the bus to go home that day, my teacher approached me and asked why I haven’t shown my tests to my parents. I burst into tears and said my dad wouldn’t let me have a kitten if I got bad math grades.
I DID finally get to pick my kitten from my aunt’s litter. I picked the kitten that looked exactly like her mother. Unfortunately, almost half the litter died without their mother. Although my aunt did a fabulous job hand-feeding the kittens, at the end of the day, they lacked the natural nurturing from their biological cat mother, which obviously stunted their development and ability to survive. However, my kitten, “Orphelia”, because she became an orphan shortly after birth, survived.
I had Orphelia for 13 years.
“Orphelia” was my favorite growing up. I turned my doll crib into her bed. I put doll clothes on her. We hid together in my room when my brother and the dog were both WAY too much to handle. I missed her every day while I was at school, including while I was away at college.
In March of 2007, shortly after my 22nd birthday, I found a single bedroom apartment in Worcester shortly after graduating from college. Although I commuted over an hour from Worcester to Medway to work in my crappy Pontiac, I was within walking distance from Worcester State University, where I intended on starting my Masters in the fall of 2007.
When I moved into my apartment, I took “Orphelia” with me. She was my only companion, and there was no way I was leaving her behind at home. By that time she was old, fat, and mean. She was never an outgoing or overly-friendly kitty. In fact, her idea of “cuddling” was sitting on the couch with me, but on the OTHER cushion. She was all about personal space. But to me it didn’t matter; I loved her all the same.
Less than 2 months after moving, I came home from work one day and noticed she hadn’t eaten all day, which was very odd behavior. Her food remained untouched all day, and she did not use her litter box.
Another week and a half went by, and she was eating very little. I started to get very worried. Then, one night after work, I was cleaning my apartment. While running the vacuum cleaner, I heard this horrible shriek and scream, which was loud enough to get my attention over the hum of the vacuum. When I shut off the vacuum and ran into the other room towards the noise, I saw my kitty panting, and walking awkwardly. Something was obviously wrong. I ran over to her to try to calm her down, but I was too late. She fell against the side of the chair…and didn’t move. My childhood pet was gone…
The next day after work, I took “Orphelia” back home to Northbridge, and my dad buried her in the backyard next to the dog.
An Adult and Her Cats…
Several months later, I adopted two new kittens from the same litter. As an experienced cat owner, I thought that two kittens was a good idea as they could keep each other company while I was at work all day. I also wanted two males. After doing some research, male cats are commonly more friendly, more vocal, and are just more fun. They also say that the opposite sex cat is attracted to the opposite sex human.
I brought “Nikki” and “Toto” home to my little apartment at 10 weeks old. Although I grew up with a cat, it was my first time caring for two kittens as an adult. So I wanted to protect them any potential apartment dangers while they adjusted to their new living space. I borrowed a baby gate from one of my neighbors, and kitten-proofed the apartment to protect them while I wasn’t there to supervise.
One day, after running some errands, I opened my apartment door to find the baby gate busted down, the living room trashed, and to the tiny sound of kitten mews coming from another area of the apartment. I threw down the bags that contained my newly purchased items to discover that “Toto” had accidentally locked himself in the bathroom, and “Nikki” had somehow opened the screen door to my balcony, and climbed up INTO the pigeon’s nest that rested atop my air conditioner. The pigeons, needless to say, were long gone.
So much for “kitten proofing”.
I hadn’t even been gone an hour.
Now, nearly ten years later, I am 31 years old, and “Nikki” and “Toto” are both 9. In the 9 years they’ve been with me, I came close to losing each one of them. In 2008, “Nikki” got very sick. He stopped eating for almost 4 days, and hid under the bed in my guest room. I brought him to the vet, and they said they had no idea what was wrong with him, and wanted to perform exploratory surgery to “try and figure it out”, which would cost about $3,000…
I remember laying on the floor with “Nikki”, my face, soaked from my tears buried in his soft fur, begging him to somehow tell me what was wrong so I could fix it. As I gently lay against him, I could hear gurgles, and “popping” sounds, just like when you have an upset stomach. And although he was incredibly sick, he purred very softly to at least let me know how much he loved me.
The next day I called another local vet to get a second opinion. I explained the situation to them, and begged them for an appointment knowing that “Nikki” was running out of time. When I met with the new vet, she explained to me that when cats are sick, sad or even near death, they stop eating, drinking, and doing all the things that would help them feel better. And their body language, such as hiding under the bed, is a sign to humans that they don’t feel well. All in all, Nikki only had an upset stomach from eating something he shouldn’t. The vet prescribed me special food to regulate his diet, and suggested I give him half a Pepcid AC tablet to help with his indigestion.
Two days later “Nikki” was 100% himself.
And needless to say, I sent the first vet a strongly-worded letter advising them to rethink their veterinary practices, and that they were fired…
In September 2015, it was “Toto”‘s turn to give me a heart attack. “Toto” got out of the house one night, and went missing during one of the hottest weeks of the summer. After not eating or sleeping and searching the neighborhood every hour for almost 48 hours straight, my father found “Toto” around the corner at my NOT-in-laws’ house while we were celebrating my significant other’s birthday.
“Toto” was a little dirty, and a little skinny, but otherwise he was completely unharmed. The only happy Wednesday on record.
How I Became Fluent in “Meow-ese”
I tell you these stories not to bore you or to elaborate on and on about the dramas of my experiences as a cat owner, but rather to explain how cats communicate with humans.
Through the years, I can say that I’ve grown fluent in “Meow-ese”. Each cat has his or her own personality, and has ways of telling you things—either vocally or with body language—that humans can understand. In fact, studies show that people who owned cats for lengthy periods of time can correctly translate 40% of a cat’s meows.
According to Dr. Nicholas Nicastro, Ph.D., “Meow-ese” seems to be generally understood by experienced cat people. Dr. Nicastro did his thesis on humans’ ability to understand meows, which he discovered that experienced cat owners were far better at understanding the meaning behind meows. In his study, Dr. Nicastro recorded hundreds of meows cats used in real settings with their owners. He had people listen to the meows, then asked what they thought the cats were conveying.
Furthermore, cats have dozens of meows that vary in pitch, length, and volume. Most cat owners learn how to distinguish the meows, and learn this language easily. For example, a short, high-pitched meow or even a chirp is a standard “Hello!” or “You’re home!” Even a loud, blatant meow can be understood as the standard greeting or can even mean, “WHERE on Earth have you been?!” Some scientists believe that cats have refined their meows specifically to manipulate people. We have to admit it works. Cats learn which meow is going to get him what he wants. Just like a child who wants a piece of candy suddenly remembers to use his or her manners, a cat knows not to use a mean meow to ask you for a favor because they know you are unlikely to comply to such rudeness.
Do Cats Understand English?
In short, yes. Yes, they can learn some words over time. “NO” seems to be understood in my house. However, it’s not so much the word that they may or may not understand, but the tone of voice in which it is said. Whenever I catch “Nikki” on the kitchen counter seeking a piece of leftover chicken or cupcakes, a loud “NO!” often follows.
Much like dogs, cats can clearly pick up your mood, or understand when they did something wrong, simply by the tone of your voice. But, UN-like dogs, cats can react to it. They know that if you are angry to leave you alone.
On the other hand, canned, wet food is also a treat in my house, and one my cats look forward to receiving on that unknown, special occasion. While they were growing up, I would sing this ridiculous song every time I would open a can of wet food. To this day, all I have to do is sing the song, and they run, full speed out of their hiding and favorite nap places to excitedly await their savory meal.
Despite popular belief, cats are intelligent creatures. You don’t have to be a “cat person” to believe this. Their intelligence doesn’t stop at learning to interpret and speak multiple languages, but they also possess the intelligence to use their paws to figure out how to open boxes, doors, latches, and politely ask you for a piece of lunch meat.
A human’s brain uses “Broca’s Area” to learn and store a language and vocabulary. While I’m not sure if a cat’s brain has the same neurological mechanism, from “Orphelia’s” shriek and call for help to me before she died, “Nikki”‘s body language when he was sick, and “Toto”‘s blatant cry for attention, I’ve seen first hand that a cat has the ability to learn how to interpret and speak to a human, and even teach us their own language.