How to tell what your cat is really saying | Sunday Observer

How to tell what your cat is really saying

2 October, 2022

Do you speak cat? You should learn to if you don’t. After all, Britons are willing servants to nearly 11 million moggies.

More than a quarter of households have a cat, but they can be infuriating pets. While dogs make their feelings plain, cats are often enigmatic and inscrutable.

That explains this month’s craze for a phone app called MeowTalk, which claims to translate purrs and miaows into English.

The app’s creator, a software engineer who helped to develop Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant, says it has seen 17 million downloads and 250 million ‘miaows’ recorded.

I couldn’t help feeling excited about its potential, though, because I’ve always believed that cats

Take the ‘slow blink’. When my wife and I first lived together, we had a black-and-white tomcat called Pod. Pod used to stare at me, as if trying to implant messages in my puny human brain. He’d gaze, and slowly his yellow eyes would close and open. I found that, by blinking back, I could hold his attention. We’d sit and blink at each other for minutes on end.

Decades later, researchers at the Cats Protection League (CPL) say this slow blink is recognised as a sign of trust, a way to establish a bond. If the animal reciprocates, you’re firm friends.

So, clearly, cats want to talk — but do they ever try to speak our language? I believe they might.

Our next cat, Peggy, was a velvet-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, with the flick of her jaw, through a wide-open mouth. She didn’t start to do it till she was about 12 years old, and I’m certain she was imitating us.

Our reactions, when she first started saying it, went from puzzlement (‘That’s an odd noise’) to amusement (‘Is she actually saying Hello?’) to amazement (‘Listen, I say Hello and she says it back!’) to acceptance (‘Hello yourself, Peggy’).

Peggy wasn’t unique. Among the millions of cat videos on YouTube and TikTok, there’s a particularly celebrated one of a ginger mog called Gambino Bambino, who lives in the southern United States.

Gambino drawls, ‘Well, Hi!’ — exactly like Scarlett O’Hara flirting with Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind. It’s quite unmistakable.

Peggy and Gambino appear to have learned to greet humans in ways we recognise and understand.

But Bristol University lecturer Dr Emily Blackwell, who has led an 11-year study into cat behaviour, explains that communication between cats themselves is even more subtle, using a language that we could never comprehend.

‘Cats communicate socially, primarily using scent (at a distance) and body language (at closer range),’ she says.

‘To orientate themselves within their environment, they ‘mark’ places, objects, and people too. This identifies some as familiar and safe, others as unfamiliar or associated with unpleasant experiences. Of course, we are totally oblivious to this when our cats rub their heads against our legs.’

She adds, moreover, that the idea of ‘translating’ their miaows into English has no scientific basis. ‘There is little evidence,’ she told me, ‘for universal, context- specific vocalisations directed towards people.’In other words, MeowTalk’s premise — that cats have a worldwide system of miaows for every occasion — is wrong.

Little wonder: when I offered it a YouTube compilation of cats miaowing, the software returned a string of wrong answers. A kitten having its tummy tickled, miaowing in bliss, was translated as ‘Mummy, where are you?’

A cat by a door, asking to go out, was translated as, ‘I’m in pain’ or ‘I am not afraid’. Anyone could see this was, in fact, a healthy animal that simply wanted to be somewhere else.

The truth about ‘cat talk’ is more complicated — and far more interesting. Instead of a universal language, our pets tailor their miaows to our ears. (