do you speak cat You should learn it if you don’t. After all, we Brits are willing servants to nearly 11 million Moggies.
More than a quarter of households have a cat, but they can be annoying pets. While dogs make their feelings clear, cats are often mysterious and unfathomable.
That explains this month’s craze for a phone app called MeowTalk, which claims to translate purrs and meows into English, for a £2.49 monthly subscription.
The app’s creator, a software engineer who helped develop Amazon’s digital assistant Alexa, says the app has racked up 17 million downloads and 250 million meows.
More on MeowTalk later, but (spoiler alert) I’m not advising you to spend any money on it.
However, I couldn’t help but get excited about its potential because I’ve always believed that cats try to communicate with us – either through their meows and growls or their body language.
You may think I’m crazy, but there’s a growing body of scientific evidence to back up my crush.
Journalist Amanda Platell introduces the MeowTalk app
Take the “slow blink”. When my wife and I first started living together, we had a black and white tomcat named Pod. Pod was always staring at me like he was trying to plant messages in my puny human brain.
He would stare, and his yellow eyes would slowly open and close. I found I could keep his attention by blinking back. We sat there for minutes, blinking at each other.
Decades later, researchers from the Cats Protection League (CPL) say that slow blinking is recognized as a sign of trust, as a way to form a bond. If the animal reciprocates, you are close friends.
So cats naturally want to talk – but do they ever try to speak our language? I believe they could.
Our next cat, Peggy, was a jet black half-Persian whose party trick was to greet us with a confident “Hah-woah!” It was a sound that started in her nose and came out through a wide open mouth with a twitch of her jaw.
She didn’t start doing this until she was about 12 and I’m sure she was imitating us.
Our reactions when she started saying it ranged from amazement (“That’s a weird sound”) to amusement (“Is she saying hello?”) to astonishment (“Look, I’m saying hello and she’s saying it back!”) for acceptance (“Hello yourself, Peggy”).
Peggy wasn’t unique. Among the millions of cat videos on YouTube and TikTok, there’s a particularly famous one of a ginger mog named Gambino Bambino who lives in the southern United States.
Gambino drawls, “Well, hi!” – as does Scarlett O’Hara, who flirts with Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind. It’s very unmistakable.
Peggy and Gambino seem to have learned to greet people in a way we know and understand.
But Bristol University lecturer Dr. Emily Blackwell, who led an 11-year study of cat behavior, explains that communication between cats themselves is even more subtle, using language we could never understand.
“Cats communicate socially, primarily through scent (from afar) and body language (from up close),” she says.
“In order to orientate themselves in their environment, they “mark” places, objects and also people. This identifies some as familiar and safe, others as unfamiliar or associated with unpleasant experiences. Of course, we don’t even notice that when our cats rub their heads against our legs.”
More than a quarter of households have a cat, but they can be annoying pets. While dogs make their feelings clear, cats are often mysterious and unfathomable
CHRISTOPHER STEVENS: “My cat Picnic (pictured) rolls onto his back, stretches out his hind legs and flaps his front paws in the air. I’ve learned the hard way that this doesn’t mean, “Please tickle my tummy.”
She adds that the idea of ”translating” her meows into English has no scientific basis. “There is little evidence,” she told me, “of universal, context-specific vocalizations aimed at humans.” In other words, MeowTalk’s premise—that cats have a worldwide system of meows for every occasion—is false.
No wonder: when I offered him a YouTube compilation of meowing cats, the software returned a series of incorrect answers.
A kitten being tickled on the tummy and meowing with happiness was translated as “Mom, where are you?”
A cat at a door wanting to go out was translated as “I am in pain” or “I am not afraid”. Everyone could see that this was indeed a healthy animal that just wanted to be somewhere else.
The truth about “cat talk” is more complicated — and far more interesting. Instead of a universal language, our pets adapt their meows to our ears.
“It seems likely that cats develop their own unique vocal patterns with their human companions and learn those that ‘work’ to evoke a desired response — for example, to give them attention or to feed them,” says Dr. Blackwell.
It’s an academic way of saying that cats think we’re useful idiots. They learn to manipulate us by trying a variety of sounds – some insistent, some babyish, some just plain weird. And when you find one that works, stick with it.
dr Blackwell adds that since we can’t naturally interpret our cats’ smells and pheromones, we need to learn to study their body language to get reliable clues as to how they’re feeling.
The Cats Protection League offers advice on some of the lesser-known behaviors.
The founders of MeowTalk say they have found a formula capable of identifying a cat’s meow and translating it into human languages (file image)
The MeowTalk app has gone viral since its launch in Japan, with 17 million downloads and 250 million meows recorded (file image)
One is “social role,” a movement I see a lot with our newest cat, Picnic. He rolls onto his back, stretches out his hind legs and flaps his front paws in the air. I’ve learned the hard way that this doesn’t mean, “Please tickle my tummy.”
No, all the Social Roll signals is a greeting. So does an erect tail that stands erect like a radio antenna.
Most people know that a cat’s wagging of its tail is, at best, a sign of indecisiveness or caution, and possibly a bad mood. Less well known is something called a “piloerection,” which means bristly hairs at the base of the tail.
This can indicate hyperarousal, possibly caused by too much petting, and is often a warning that your cat will snap at you – another behavior I’ll be on the lookout for.
When a cat crouches, it can easily be misinterpreted as playful. But it can also be a sign that your pet is worried and getting ready to run.
Cats seem made for cuddling, but the CPL also warns that there are many places most moggies don’t like being touched. The top of the head and the back of the ears are good for stroking, but keep your hands away from the hind legs and underframe.
When a cat is relaxed, its ears are pricked. Flat ears are a bad sign. And of course, you should never rub a cat’s fur the wrong way. That calls for trouble. Of course, none of this benefits smartphone users hoping to understand their pet with newfangled technology. But Swedish researcher Dr. Susanne Schotz, a lecturer in phonetics at Lund University, could be on the verge of cracking the cat code.
There are, she says, common meows that you should know well. Kittens make a low, whining noise, especially when they’re cold or hungry. Adult cats often retain this, a sort of baby talk, when they want to be mothered.
A squeak rising like a question at the end is usually a plea for a snack. However, a groan is a sign of stress.
Ultimately, however, communication with our Moggys is largely personal. dr Schotz even suspects that human accents influence cat meowing.
It seems no smartphone app will ever be able to translate an individual animal’s unique vocabulary. However, Dr. Schotz has some simple advice for owners of cats like Picnic who don’t meow a lot.
Talk to your pets. chat. After a while, they might just start replying.