by Barbara George
Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
Cats recognise and respond to sounds – the tin-opener and vacuum-cleaner are good examples – but can they recognise individual words? With their very sensitive hearing our voices probably sound horrible!
Cats chose to be domesticated; they initiated the process. In early times, when they were rodent-catchers and protectors of food stores, they were not told what to do or when; they performed their tasks as they would have in the wild. In our current relationships with cats the status quo is much the same – cats tend to do what they do, mostly regardless of what we say!
Research in Japan in 2013 found that cats recognised the voice of their owners but did not react to the voice. All the cats in the study showed signs of hearing voices of both owners and strangers but only showed a level of interest in the voices of their owners. As a survival strategy cats do not easily display emotion unless they are very sure of their surroundings; expressing concern or excitement may cause them temporarily to lose vigilance and trigger a reaction from a predator.
Varying sources believe that cats can learn to recognise between 25 and 50 individual words or commands, but they will only retain the memory of a word as long as it is beneficial to them, i.e. as long as there is a continual or frequent-enough reward for responding to the word.
Do cats learn actual words or do they heard a sound pattern, almost a picture of the sound, and relate to that? Do they make a sound association with the tone, inflection, pitch, place, routine and other processes around the use of a word? If you called ‘Treats!’ while holding open the cat carrier would they respond in the same way as if you were in the garden with a toy? Do cats respond the same way to the same words used by different people with different ways of saying the word? Many cats will respond to the sound of a tin-opener or fridge door only at certain times of the day, or when certain events happen.
Cats can be trained to perform actions on command. These actions are often linked to an event – paw for guests, sit for dinner, go to bed at night, sit next to the computer.
The most difficult word for a cat to learn is his name, especially if there are a number of derivatives or nick-names. Soft-sounding names are most confusing as the sound patterns are not definite. Words commonly used in speech are often ignored because the response/consequence is not given often enough to make an impression on the cat.
The question remains unanswered – Do cats understand words or only the consequence of the sound?