In some ways, trying to communicate with your cat is a lot like traveling to Paris ten years after your last high school French lesson.
You’re pretty sure you said something in French to the sweet old lady who sold you a croissant, but you’re not exactly sure whether or not you just called her a cow.
I learned French at high school and currently own a cat and I, like many other cat owners before me, have on several occasions tried meowing at my kitty on the off chance I may be fluent in Meowish. It’s more likely I simply insulted my cat to her very core, but a girl can dream, right?
If you grew up watching Dr. Dolittle, I’m sure you have also tried talking to animals in their own languages, but the question remains, do cats actually speak or think in meows? Are meows a cat’s equivalent to words, or are they just random sounds? If not meows, what language do cats think in?
This article dives into the complicated world of your kitty’s thoughts.
The shortest answer to whether cats think in meows is no, they don’t. In fact, cats don’t think in words or sounds at all. A cat’s actual act of thinking is most likely done in concepts.
Despite this, meows do carry some meaning, and there is a chance cats can connect a specific meow to an event or a reaction from their owners, but this has not been studied thoroughly enough to be sure.
As no real research has been done to determine whether or not cats, or any animals for that matter, are capable of rational thought, most people choose to assess their cat’s thinking abilities according to their own love of the breed.
If you’re a diehard cat fanatic, there’s a good chance you believe your cat can understand every word you’re saying. In fact, some mammals, like monkeys and apes, can learn and understand words, but in the case of cats, there’s very little we really know about the way they perceive the world around them and how their perceptions are processed into thoughts.
The Thinking Cat
Like many other animals, the truth of the matter is that it is likely cats think without language. They probably do that by only processing concepts. Instead of their internal dialogue narrating their every action, their brain registers broad ideas and interactions in their environment.
If you classify thinking as having a sense of self, a belief in something beyond your everyday needs, or the ability to anticipate the future or ponder upon the past, according to your definition, cats are not able to think.
One of the biggest mistakes cat owners make is to place humanistic expectations on their pets.
Many studies have shown that cats can recognize their owners from voice alone, have a basic understanding of object permanence, and have developed their own way of communicating through body language. However, if you expect them to muse over the meaning of life or have recurring thoughts of how much they love you, you’ll be sadly mistaken.
How Cats Think in Concepts
A simple way to explain a cat’s thought process is by using human conceptual cognition as an example. If you’re walking and find an obstacle in your path, you will automatically either walk around it or jump over it. You won’t stand in front of it for a good couple of minutes and narrate the situation and your various options to pass it to yourself.
That is an example of conceptual thought, which is likely how cats experience the world.
When they are hungry, their first priority is to find food. If they perceive a threat, they instinctively move away or react aggressively. When they see their owners, they instantly associate them with food, safety, and comfort.
It’s almost as if cats think solely in ideas. If they see a can opening, they instinctively know they are about to be fed, but no objective thought process brought them to that conclusion.
Do Cats Understand Words?
Just because cats can’t speak or think in a language doesn’t mean they can’t understand us. Unlike dogs, cats don’t seem to obey our commands, making it difficult to know whether or not they don’t understand us or if they’re just willfully ignorant.
Those of you who believe your kitties are above reproach have I got some news for you.
Surprising as it may be, cats do understand human language. Not in the same way I can say I understand French, but by associating a specific word with an object or action. Just like babies are taught a book is a book by continuously showing them the object and repeating the word, cats can learn what the sounds we make are referring to.
So if your cat is ignoring you, it’s not because it doesn’t understand you’re calling it; it just doesn’t care to listen.
What Do Meows Mean?
It’s been established that cats do not think in meows or any other language or sound for that matter. If this is true, though, what does meowing actually mean?
One of the biggest clues to the meaning of meows comes from the significant differences in the sounds made by domesticated and feral cats. Many believe cats started meowing how they do to mimic the sound of a baby crying and elicit stronger emotions from humans.
There’s also a good chance that cats have learned to associate a specific type of meow to a particular reaction in their humans. They may have realized if they meow in one way, we give them food, and if they meow in another way, we provide them with attention.
Most evidence goes to show that cats developed meowing as their way to ask something from humans. It’s also important to remember that, unlike other animals, cats don’t see us as any different from themselves. They simply assume we are rather large, clumsy cats ourselves.
They don’t perceive us as their owners or bosses, so they use meows to command us to do what they want. Research has gone so far as to prove most cats know how to manipulate their owners into doing what they want simply through vocalizations.
Even though they can’t think the same way we do, cats have developed their communication and vocalization abilities to make sure we are always wrapped around their littlest toe.