Is there anything cuter than when your cat “talks” to you? Cat people all love that cheery “Brrrup!” first thing in the morning (ideally after dawn) or the hearty “Ma-row!” when they first get home. Or when the food dish is empty, depending on your li’l one’s personality. What does it mean, exactly? If you are a veterinarian or other expert on cats you’re probably pretty sure it means … nothing. That’s right, cat people, just about any felinologist will tell you that your furry box dweller is simply meowing and chirping for no real reason at all.
I don’t believe it, either. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the domestic feline has some limited vocabulary that means something, even if we aren’t smart enough to understand it. I doubt they are planning to kill us or report back instructions to an invading army back on the cat planet, so perhaps I am a bit naïve after all. But here’s what I’ve found.
Meet Tony, a small caliber domestic tiger licensed for home use. He is about 11 pounds of orange and white purr and fur. Tony came from the woods near Spooner, Wisconsin in 2004 and his life has been a bit of a mystery – you may notice part of his left ear is missing. He has lived with as many as 3 other cats in his life and is generally a very sweet and grateful little guy. That assumes, of course ,that you are not a small mammal, in which case you know him as a vicious killing machine – if he is awake, of course.
Tony is quite a talker, meaning that he is constantly saying “Brrrup!” and “Marow!” and all kinds of things as he enters a room. I have long refused to believe that these noises are, as most experts agree, meaningless cries for attention. Cats communicate primarily through body language and inaudible means, and cats in the wild have never been observed yowling on the way Tony does. So it is presumed that there is no need in a normal cat life for “talking”.
There’s one problem with this, however. Tony will come when he is called, and based on what I say (such as “milk!”) he may have different and clear expectations. Vocal “language” may be a human thing, but Tony can certainly learn it, meaning he has the concept of “words” in his little cat brain.
One strong example – eat a bowl of cereal with milk and he will maul you to get a lick. He appears to be gaga for milk. Why? We can presume, based on where he came from, that he was born to be a Barn Cat. One quick test confirmed it as I thought it through. Think about putting a pan of milk down in the straw and yelling for the pride to get it. “Cats!” would be the logical thing to say, “Cats!” So I tried that once. Tony came running, clearly expecting to be fed his fave treat – despite it coming from a different voice in a different situation. At one time, the only name he knew was “cats,” in plural (and I still call him that).
If Tony understands the concept of language, can he use it? Clearly his vocal range is broad enough to make that possible. So I have been listening for patterns – and recently I found one. Tony loves my son George and will roll over next to George any chance he gets. When George comes home Tony makes a distinct sound – a repeatable “word” that can be documented and said back to him. “Eeoorw” with a 2 descending tones, something like the tones used in Mandarin Chinese, means something associated with George. Whether it’s the name Tony has given him, the word “Hello!” or simply “Please pet me!” I can’t say. But it’s a distinct sound that he makes that has been uniquely associated with a particular situation.
It is a word in “cat language”.
Now, this is not anywhere near as elaborate of a speech as some people have reported from their cats, and nothing compared to what some have documented. You can call any or all of us crazy if you want, but the cat language I know of has at least one documented word. That implies that there may be others. This may be unique to domestic cats who encounter human language first, but there is no reason to believe that they can’t do it.
What’s amazing is that if we are supposed to be the smart ones, why is it that cats can apparently understand our language better than we can understand theirs? That is another topic altogether.
In the meantime, do you have any stories about cat language of your own?