Those of us who are animal lovers understand that every species has its own unique way of communicating and in many instances, we have learned to communicate with immense effectiveness with some of these different animals, especially dogs. When it comes to cats, they can be contrary and indifferent in their behaviors, often choosing to ignore your commands or requests. This contrarian behavior may lead some people to believe that cats don’t really understand words as spoken by human beings. Recently, the question has been posed with such great frequency that it demanded a response.
At the very core of this question, is a simple answer: yes. Cats can learn words through association and the use of a reward system for proper response; however, whether they actually respond to those words will be highly dependent upon their mood at a given time. Unlock dogs, cats don’t inherently have this desire to please their owners. Their interaction and response to humans will weigh heavily on their mental attitude. They can be very standoffish and defiant when they don’t feel like being bothered. If you are a cat owner, you have definitely learned by now that they don’t respond to being put on a leash, while dogs can easily be trained to be put on a leash.
So the question is not so much whether cats learn words, but how much will their learning benefit them and you. In a sense, cats are very selfish — meaning that they are best manipulated or controlled when there is something in it for them, while dogs will simply do things because you ask. A cat’s mindset is more like “what’s in it for me.” Beyond their mood, the behaviors of cats weigh heavily on a reward system. I am not one for using threats and scare tactics with animals, but the alpha presence has to be established with any pet and definitely with cats, or they will literally take over your home. Once a cat takes over your home, you will have to call the Cat Whisperer to get it back. They are very stubborn.
When you study the behavior of your cat, you will find that there are certain words the more readily respond to than others. If you take the time to analyze what is happening in each instance — with the good and poor responses — you will likely find that the quick and proper responses are directly linked to some type of positive reward or connected to something they like. For instance, you will likely get a quick response from your cat when you mention the word “kitchen,” especially if the kitchen is where you give them their treats. Basically, you are getting your best responses when there is something in it for your pet.
If you have used certain words and phrases around your cat consistently, it is likely they have effectively associated the word with an action, place, or thing. Unfortunately, this does not mean that they will be consistent in their responses, simply because of their nature. If you are looking to create more consistent responses, experts believe the best approach is repetition. If there is a word you want to teach your feline, use it every time you are doing what the word is associated with. The more times you repeat the word in association with the act, the more likely it will become engrained in the brain of the cat, increasing the likelihood that the animal will respond when prompted.
Something else that you should be aware of when communicating with your cat is the tone of your voice. It is likely that your pet will respond more to your tone than your actual words. Pets have emotional centers, and while they are somewhat different than humans, they respond to emotional signals. While very little has been done to produce empirical evidence to support this theory with cats, a wealth of data exists when it comes to dogs. Dogs know when their owner is distressed and will respond more rapidly in such a case. What this means is that it is highly likely that stress or anger detected in the tone of your voice may not produce the response that you are looking for.
When it comes to cats, it is not so much what they pick up from what you are trying to communicate but what they actually care about.