Jason was an indoor cat, but my parents insisted that he stayed in the cellar when I wasn’t around. So, as soon as I got back home from classes, I’d let him up.
He’d sashay upstairs into the kitchen and launch right into a “let me tell you about my day” monologue. I’d toss out a comment or a question, and he’d keep meowing back to me.
Were we actually having a conversation? Or was my big fluffy tuxedo cat merely responding to the sound of my voice?
A Different Animal
In general, cats understand us much better than we do them. They study us and familiarize themselves with our moods and our day-to-day rituals, gradually becoming a part of those rituals.
That’s because felines are essentially observers and strategists. These are qualities that served them well in their undomesticated days, when they hunted to survive. And they’ve been passed down to the cats we share our lives with.
Cats let us think we’re in charge. “You know what they’re asking you for because they’ve trained you, and that’s the beautiful part,” says Dr. Gary Weitzman, DVM, coauthor of How to Speak Cat.
Technically speaking, we can train both cats and dogs, says Dr. Weitzman. But cats “actually train us to respond to what they want us to do. It’s really kind of cool.”
Dialoguing With Felines
Cats have roughly 16 types of meows that they use when interacting with us. Each meow is, according to Weitzman, “individual to every single cat…no 2 cats make the same noises, and that’s why every meow is specific and consistent for that cat with a person.”
What’s more, they only vocalize to us.
Cat behaviorist Arden Moore says cats are “capable of making at least 30 sounds, including at least 19 variations on the simple meow.” These variations range from “I want attention now!” to “Oh my God, you’re taking me to the vet! In the car! You monster!”
Elderly cats will sometimes start meowing loudly for no reason. Actually, there is a reason: kitty dementia, or what Dr. Arnold Plotnick, DVM, calls “a decrease of cognitive function.”
Of course, the most famous meow is The Silent Miaow, which Paul Gallico wrote about in his book of the same name (1964). A cat opens her mouth and no sound comes out. It is “an un-cry of despair and longing that pierces more swiftly and directly to the human heart than the most self-pitying miaow.”
Over time, we usually manage to get a good handle on what are cats are trying to tell us. A lot of it is more body language than verbal language:
- That slow blink thing your cat does? It’s his way of showing trust and acceptance.
- Yes, when your cat rubs against your legs, he’s being affectionate. But he’s also marking you as his property. And you thought you had him with that collar and name tag, didn’t you?
- Tails can do a lot of talking, too. For instance, a straight-up tail means all’s well with his world. But a bottle-brush tail means your cat senses danger and has gone on red alert.
The cats in this video are definitely saying something, but what is it?
Magwitch, my snowshoe Siamese, favors the question-mark tail. It’s kinda quirky and gives him a philosophical look. Turns out it’s cat for “I’m happy to see you.”
A few years ago, Kim Silva, a retired teacher from the American School for the Deaf, adopted a deaf flamepoint Siamese named Bambi. Silva, who is hard of hearing, went one better — she decided to teach sign language not only to Bambi but also to Bobcat and Bear, the cats already in residence.
Bear never caught on, but Bambi and Bobcat did. So did Thomasina, who joined the household after Bear’s death in 2013.
Naturally, the cats don’t sit there signing with their paws. But they do understand the signs for “sit,” “come,” “high-five,” “circle,” “shrimp” and “dance.” And Bambi has her own way of signing when she wants to play ball — she stands up on her hind legs and taps Silva’s hand. It’s probably the closest anyone has ever gotten to teaching a cat to talk.
Truthfully, there are several ways that cats communicate with us — we just have to try and be as observant with them as they are with us.