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Can Cats Understand Humans and Our Language? What Science Says

little girl talking to cat
Image Credit: Africa Studio, Shutterstock
Last Updated on November 22, 2023 by Catster Editorial Team
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As loving pet owners, it’s all too easy to anthropomorphize our pets. We often assign human emotions to their facial expressions and body language or talk to them as if they understand what we’re saying. Dogs have been proven to understand some degree of human communication, and anyone who’s owned an intelligent canine can attest to this. But what about cats? Can they understand any of our language?

According to new studies, cats actually might be able to pick out particular words that their owner says, though only in very specific circumstances. However, felines zone out most of what you say as they only recognize certain words. Even the words they recognize don’t have the same meaning to them that they do to us.

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Can Cats Recognize Their Owners’ Voices?

Cats have been cohabitating with people for about 10,000 years. In that time, it would make sense that they’ve learned to communicate with us to some degree. According to a 2013 study, cats can recognize their owners’ voices, though they often choose to ignore them.

Anyone who’s owned a cat is unlikely to be surprised at this. Most cats do not respond to their owners’ voices by communicating in response. Rather, they can pick their owners’ voices out of a mix of random voices, indicating the recognition by orienting behavior such as ear and head movement.

woman talking to her cat
Image Credit: garetsworkshop, Shutterstock

Do Cats Respond to Their Name?

Another study conducted in 2019 found that cats can recognize the sound of their name and differentiate it from the sound of other words. However, it also showed that cats are unlikely to respond to their name, even though they recognize it.

Do Cats Know Their Name?

Here’s where things get a bit strange. We know cats by their names, and we know that cats can recognize the sound of their name. But cats don’t recognize their name as their name. Instead, they recognize it as a sound that generally means something else will happen afterward.

When a cat hears their name, usually they’re about to get food, a treat, or go on a trip. They learn to recognize the sound of their name and associate it with something happening, but they don’t understand that the name is a label for them.

Habituation

When cats learn that certain noises and sounds they hear regularly do not have a consequence that benefits or harms them, they get used to ignoring them, which is known as habituation. However, cats know that certain sounds have consequences for them and will impact them in some way, so cats respond to their names.

They’ve learned that something is about to happen after they hear a particular word, in this case, their name. All other words mean very little to a feline, so they essentially zone out everything else you’re saying since it won’t directly affect them.

close up of cat meowing
Image Credit: ClaraMD, Pixabay

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Do Cats Understand Human Language?

Though cats may recognize the sound of their name and their owners’ voices, they don’t understand human language. There is no scientific evidence that anything you say to your cat registers as meaningful to them unless you pair a word with a consequence. Then, the word signals the consequence, which will have a meaning to the cat.

In this way, a cat can learn more than one word. They learn to respond to the sound of the word and consequence in a similar way they learn to respond to the sound of a fridge or can of food opening. Again, they only respond to their name because it generally means something is about to happen that will directly impact them. Since other words rarely result in a direct impact on your cat, they simply ignore the rest.

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Conclusion

Ultimately, cats don’t understand anything you say. However, cats can recognize the sound of their owners’ voices and pick them out amongst the sound of strangers’ voices. Furthermore, cats can recognize their own names, even if their name is said by someone other than their owner.

However, it’s not because they understand that their name is a label for them. Instead, they realize that when they hear that particular word, something is about to happen that will directly impact them in some way.

Looking for more about cat intelligence? Try these posts:


Featured Image Credit: Africa Studio, Shutterstock

About the Author

Christian Adams
Christian Adams
Christian is the Editor-in-Chief of Excited Cats and one of its original and primary contributors. A lifelong cat lover, now based in South East Asia, Christian and his wife are the proud parents of an 11-year-old son and four rescue cats: Trixie, Chloe, Sparky, and Chopper.

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