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  #1  
Old 01-19-2006, 06:46 PM
George Kaplin George Kaplin is offline
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Can cats understand words?

I was walking to work the other day when I saw the following poster nailed to a tree:

LOST
MALE GINGER TABBY CAT
MAY ANSWER TO THE NAME 'EARL'

And it got me thinking. Would a cat actually answer to a word? Do they have the cognitive capacity to respond to verbal cues?
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  #2  
Old 01-19-2006, 06:51 PM
YaWanna YaWanna is offline
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It is true that cats can vocalize over 130 different sounds, and that they only make the "meow"-type sounds around humans. Given a lot of anecdotal evidence that they make sounds that imitate human words in circumstances that seem to show that they expect a certain result from making those particular sounds, it isn't a stretch to draw the conclusion that cats can comprehend human verbal cues.

However, most cats aren't very good at answering to anything. They're much better at ignoring you when you call them.
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Old 01-19-2006, 06:51 PM
RealityChuck RealityChuck is offline
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It seems possible. Our cat definitely reacts to the word "snack." Or even anything with the "sn-" beginning when it's time to be fed. Cats are especially motivated to learn when it has something to do with food.

This indicates it is possible.
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  #4  
Old 01-19-2006, 06:53 PM
lonesome loser lonesome loser is offline
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My cats all know their names. They will respond. But I don't know if they would to a strangers voice.
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Old 01-19-2006, 06:53 PM
Mindfield Mindfield is offline
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They don't respond to words exactly, but sounds. They can learn to differentiate a fair array of different sounds. I read a study once that claimed they are most responsive to fricative (sh, ch), dentive (T) and sibilant (S, soft C) sounds.

All of my cats (I have four) respond to their names, though two (Patches and Dutchess) will usually turn their heads when I call either name, since they sound relatively similar.
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Old 01-19-2006, 06:56 PM
Mr. Blue Sky Mr. Blue Sky is offline
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Mine understands NO and "come on".

She can also shake hands (well, paws). I would grab her paw and shake it while saying "shake". I figured for a while she was responding to my putting my open palm in front of her, but I would say "shake" without presenting my hand and she would offer her paw to me.
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Old 01-19-2006, 07:03 PM
MLS MLS is offline
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We had a cat who understood the phrase "tuna fish sandwich." My husband would ask me for one and Rocky would be in the kitchen before I was.

In my youth, we had a cat who understood words like "out." We had to spell it lest she start yelling.
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Old 01-19-2006, 07:06 PM
silenus silenus is offline
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Some words, sure. I don't think their up to a discussion of Hegelian Philosophy, but "no," "good kitty," and their names are easily understoood by even the most obtuse feline.
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Old 01-19-2006, 07:08 PM
silenus silenus is offline
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But I, possessing an English Credential, apparently can't spell "they're" correctly. Thus proving that my cats are smarter than I am.
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  #10  
Old 01-19-2006, 07:12 PM
kanicbird kanicbird is offline
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Quote:
It is true that cats can vocalize over 130 different sounds, and that they only make the "meow"-type sounds around humans
My understanding is the reason they use 'meow' is because this is what they want to say to us. It is actually 2 'cat words' put together. One 'word' means that I accept you (for now), the 2nd is I will defend myself, or attack if I feel it needed. Sometimes cat owners will just get the 'me' part of the meow, which indicates the cat has no intention of attack, which is a much more friendly jesture.
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  #11  
Old 01-19-2006, 07:15 PM
The Scrivener The Scrivener is offline
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Sometimes the cat can even recognize a very important word when their humans are spelling it out, in a vain attempt to prevent the cat from getting excited. This can work both ways: going into beggar-overdrive after hearing a food word, or hitting the mattresses (actually, the spaces underneath) after hearing "vet".

I don't think this is cause for immediate worry, though. It's not as if I've spied them poring over diagrams for atom-smashers or something.
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  #12  
Old 01-19-2006, 08:54 PM
SnakesCatLady SnakesCatLady is offline
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All of my (8) cats know their names. My Siamese used to sit by the door leading to the screened porch in the old house and say "Ooooooooouuuut".
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  #13  
Old 01-19-2006, 08:57 PM
asterion asterion is online now
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Quote:
Originally Posted by The Scrivener
I don't think this is cause for immediate worry, though. It's not as if I've spied them poring over diagrams for atom-smashers or something.
You've just got to watch out for the right ones. I think they're up to something.
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  #14  
Old 01-19-2006, 09:01 PM
Walloon Walloon is offline
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America's Funniest Home Videos ran a memorable clip of a cat resisting an attempt to give it a bath, as it howled, "Nooooo! Nooooo!"
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  #15  
Old 01-19-2006, 09:11 PM
mobo85 mobo85 is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Walloon
America's Funniest Home Videos ran a memorable clip of a cat resisting an attempt to give it a bath, as it howled, "Nooooo! Nooooo!"
There was also a funny clip from another episode of the same show where a cat spoke a number of gibberish sentences, including "Old Don piano" and "All the live-long day."
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  #16  
Old 01-19-2006, 09:21 PM
Whack-a-Mole Whack-a-Mole is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by YaWanna
It is true that cats can vocalize over 130 different sounds...
I have seen cats mimic birds. First time I saw it I was shocked...they (two of them who I was cat sitting for) were pretty good at it. When I mentioned this to the owners they were not surprised and mentioning it to other cat owners many were not surprised. I can only guess it was the cats' attmepts to lure the birds closer but I do not really know.

My two cats definitely each know their name. One is dumber than a brick and the other is rather bright but both definitely respond (usually just open their eyes, turn their head and look at you before ignoring you again). You can be chattering away, talking about anything and everything and even talking to the cats about the cats and mostly you get no response but their names will get their attention if only for a moment.

Beyond that I suspect my cats "understand" some words but given the cat prediliction for ignoring most things it is difficult to tell. They will respond to other words it seems (catnip, food, no, ball, etc.) but they do not respond with enough regularity to really be certain. If they are interested in one of those things at that moment they seem to respond to the word. Other times you get totally ignored. I do not know if it is because they really have not twigged to the word or are just uninterested at that moment.
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  #17  
Old 01-19-2006, 09:26 PM
Polycarp Polycarp is offline
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Cats are quite intelligent enough to associate particular sounds with particular objects or events, such as "out," "food," etc.

I tell this story and I expect skepticism about it, though it's the truth: We had a cat once who mastered speaking about 20 English words (insofar as feline vocalizing equipment will match a human language), apparently because she was discouraged and disgusted at our inability to learn the meaning of her different calls. She would use "aaooouuuuwww" for "out," "ppfffooooooo" for "food" (the "ppfff" mimicking a spitting sound she apparently indended for /f/), "mmmmmeeeeehhhww" for "milk," and several others to represent, insofar as she could, the English terms for things she wanted. Apparently she figured that if we were too dumb to learn Cat, she would have to master English. And it was bemusing for me to have a short conversation with my cat, in the same language!
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  #18  
Old 01-19-2006, 09:29 PM
Rubystreak Rubystreak is offline
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My cats know the word FOODS, which is what I say when it's dinner time. It works when other people say it too, so it's not just my voice they respond to. Ditto TREATS and CATNIP.

They do know their names and will come in from other rooms when called by name. My cat Dolphie will even answer me with a with a "mrmrmrmr-AaaahhhOOOoo" type sound, followed by squeaks if I don't then pet her immediately, or purring if I do.

So yes, I think they can understand some words. Very concrete ones, but hey, that doesn't set them apart from a lot of the people I know.
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  #19  
Old 01-19-2006, 09:41 PM
Icarus Icarus is offline
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Each of my cats will come when their respective name is called.

And the was-male one is quite clear on communicating what was-he wants:

"Ooooowwwwtt"

"Chooooooowwww"

and "Chooooooowwww NOOOOOOWWWW!"

As for letting me know the litter box needs cleaned, he does that with a withering stare.
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  #20  
Old 01-19-2006, 09:42 PM
AHunter3 AHunter3 is offline
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I asked He Who Waveth The Spectacularly Imposing Kitty-Tail

ME: Pardon me, your Exquisite Fuzziness, but is it true that you catfolk can understand human words?

HHWSIKT: To the extent that Those Who Doth Operate the Can-Opener have actual thoughts, and can give voice to them, well, yes, of course.

ME: Are you sure you're not assessing the validity of human thoughts on the basis of whether or not their contents are interesting or useful to you?

HHWSIKT: You seem to be trying to make a point of some sort. I think you are begging the question though. The validity of human thoughts, like the validity of anything else in this limited world, is of course a function of whether or not the contents thereof are interesting or useful to me.

ME: Yeah, yeah...look, I think this is about whether or not kitty-cats have the mental skills to recognize sound patterns and correlate them with the context in which they occur.

HHWSIKT: ::gives slanty-eyed askance treatment:: Your behaviors with the most useful patterns aren't the silly sounds you make. I noticed you picked me up and put me outside whenever I went to sharpen my claws on the sliding screen door, and were quite rapid in doing so. This was useful information, so whenever I wish to go outside I make sure I have your eye and then I raise up and start clawing the screen door. If the vocal sounds you make give me a useful handle on how to manage you more effectively, I'll make use of it, but with a couple of minor exceptions they have not proven that useful or interesting to me. ::cat yawn::
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  #21  
Old 01-19-2006, 09:43 PM
Whack-a-Mole Whack-a-Mole is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Icarus
As for letting me know the litter box needs cleaned, he does that with a withering stare.
My friend's cat lets it be known the litter box needs cleaning by flinging poo out of the box. She'll go in, sniff around a sec then start smacking turds out like a hockey player.
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  #22  
Old 01-19-2006, 10:11 PM
yBeayf yBeayf is offline
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I tell this story and I expect skepticism about it, though it's the truth: We had a cat once who mastered speaking about 20 English words
I believe it. My cats, though less than a year old, have an exceedingly wide vocabulary, everything from a low whine when I'm clipping their nails, to a high-pitched "aeaeiiAII" when I've returned from being absent, to a sharp, high yipping when I'm preparing their dinner. Thus far, though, the only word they say is "hello" -- I will say it to them in a singsong "HELL-oh" and they'll repeat back "ENH-oh" in the exact same intonation.
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  #23  
Old 01-20-2006, 09:12 AM
Daithi Lacha Daithi Lacha is offline
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When it's feeding time at the Lacha Homestead, we'll go into the kitchen and call out, "Who's Hungry?" 4 cats -- including one who is semi-deaf -- will materialize out of thin air. Of course they can link the noises we make with standardized and scheduled behavior.
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  #24  
Old 01-20-2006, 09:17 AM
CalMeacham CalMeacham is offline
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Cats are quite intelligent enough to associate particular sounds with particular objects or events, such as "out," "food," etc.

I tell this story and I expect skepticism about it, though it's the truth: We had a cat once who mastered speaking about 20 English words (insofar as feline vocalizing equipment will match a human language), apparently because she was discouraged and disgusted at our inability to learn the meaning of her different calls. She would use "aaooouuuuwww" for "out," "ppfffooooooo" for "food" (the "ppfff" mimicking a spitting sound she apparently indended for /f/), "mmmmmeeeeehhhww" for "milk," and several others to represent, insofar as she could, the English terms for things she wanted. Apparently she figured that if we were too dumb to learn Cat, she would have to master English. And it was bemusing for me to have a short conversation with my cat, in the same language!

Our cat, too. You may say I'm projecting human qualities to cat-speak, but I swear our cat Midnight can say "Out!" and "Ham!" Someone heard Midnight say "Ham!" over the telephone and instantly recognized the word. ("Ham" means any kind of lunchmeat, including sliced turkey).


I knew a cat that responded to its name, no matter who said it.
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  #25  
Old 01-20-2006, 09:49 AM
panache45 panache45 is offline
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My cat, like all his predecessors, knows how to spell; he knows it's chow time when he hears "E.A.T."
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  #26  
Old 01-20-2006, 09:53 AM
butler1850 butler1850 is offline
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Amazing how the other cats in this thread sound just like mine!

Both cats know their own names, and will come when called. One more so than the other, but they won't come to the name that isn't their own.

"Hungry" is apparently the loudest word on the planet. I can say it here at work, and the cats at home hear it.

Depending on the training, I'm certain that they understand that certain sound combinations correspond to certain conditions/experiences, and they react appropriately.
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Old 01-20-2006, 01:02 PM
Jake Jake is offline
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My cat doesn't recognize many words but she does understand the language "Canopener". Even though I feed her dry food.
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  #28  
Old 01-20-2006, 01:33 PM
Cervaise Cervaise is offline
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The words recognized by the Fuzzy Black Land Shark who lives in my house are "out," "treat," and his name.

"Don't puke on the couch" has, thus far, eluded him.
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  #29  
Old 01-20-2006, 05:13 PM
CC CC is offline
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Someone here must be able to find a link to the famous Far Side cartoon of cats and dogs and what they hear and what they understand - including their names. I won't spoil it, but it's extremely germain. We need this. any help? (I'll go looking, but I don't really know how to put links in a post.) xo, C.
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Old 01-20-2006, 05:35 PM
Jayrot Jayrot is offline
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Uhh, since this is GQ and all:

Did any of you who claim that your cats recognize their name/food/snack/whatever do any kind of controlled tested. For example, if you're in the other room and you yell out "Here Dingleberry Dingleberry Dingleberry!" in the high-pitched baby voice you normally use with your cat, are you telling me they won't respond?

Use the same number of syllables and the same tone of voice.
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Old 01-20-2006, 05:39 PM
Scarlett67 Scarlett67 is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by CC
Someone here must be able to find a link to the famous Far Side cartoon of cats and dogs and what they hear and what they understand - including their names. I won't spoil it, but it's extremely germain. We need this. any help? (I'll go looking, but I don't really know how to put links in a post.) xo, C.
Is it this one?
SPOILER:
Top panel: "What We Say to Dogs." A guy is yelling at his dog: "Ginger, stay out of the garbage! How many times have I told you not to dig in the garbage, Ginger? For the last time, Ginger, stay out of the garbage!" Bottom panel: "What They Hear." The dog is hearing, "blah blah Ginger blah blah blah blah Ginger blah blah Ginger blah blah."
One of my favorites as well.

When I saw the thread title and what appeared on the mouseover, I thought that perhaps the poster said something like "Fluffy, please come home! We miss you!"
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  #32  
Old 01-20-2006, 05:43 PM
silenus silenus is offline
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This panel.
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  #33  
Old 01-20-2006, 06:00 PM
Cervaise Cervaise is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jayrot
Use the same number of syllables and the same tone of voice.
As a matter of fact, I have done this.

"Treat!" he squeals, weaves through my legs, and runs to the kitchen, whence said treat is dispensed.

"Pique!" he looks up with interest, then pauses, and gets a puzzled expression, like, I know that sounds familiar, are you messing with me?
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Old 01-20-2006, 06:20 PM
daffyduck daffyduck is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jayrot
Uhh, since this is GQ and all:

Did any of you who claim that your cats recognize their name/food/snack/whatever do any kind of controlled tested. For example, if you're in the other room and you yell out "Here Dingleberry Dingleberry Dingleberry!" in the high-pitched baby voice you normally use with your cat, are you telling me they won't respond?

Use the same number of syllables and the same tone of voice.
My cat's name is Kimo (key-moe) and I talk to him and call him in the same tone of voice I use all the time. I don't use baby talk or a special tone for him as there simply is no need to and I have no desire to do so. He doesn't respond to other two syllable words or even to the two syllables of his name if they are reversed or if I say "me-moe". He is a Siamese and very intelligent compared to other cats I have owned. As I tell my friends, "He ain't much for calculus, but he is a genius at getting what he wants."
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  #35  
Old 01-20-2006, 10:38 PM
Dung Beetle Dung Beetle is offline
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My mom has a cat who gets visibly tense upon hearing the words, "Did you do that?"
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  #36  
Old 01-21-2006, 11:23 AM
Daithi Lacha Daithi Lacha is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by silenus
IIRC, the panel he did involving what cats hear involved the same scenario, but the second speech balloon was completely blank.
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Old 01-21-2006, 11:49 AM
Ferret Herder Ferret Herder is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Jayrot
Uhh, since this is GQ and all:

Did any of you who claim that your cats recognize their name/food/snack/whatever do any kind of controlled tested. For example, if you're in the other room and you yell out "Here Dingleberry Dingleberry Dingleberry!" in the high-pitched baby voice you normally use with your cat, are you telling me they won't respond?

Use the same number of syllables and the same tone of voice.
We had a cat who would respond like this. Same tone of voice, looking in a neutral direction, say "mouse?" and she'd go sniff around the baseboard that had been put up in front of where a mouse hole had appeared. Say "bird?" and she'd run to the window, jump onto the sill, and look around outside.
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  #38  
Old 01-21-2006, 01:28 PM
Tibby or Not Tibby Tibby or Not Tibby is offline
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My cat, Tibby, does not understand many words, but the words that he knows are quite impressive: lugubrious, supererogatory, asseverate, deracinate and circumlocution. I just wish that he would come when I call his name.
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  #39  
Old 01-21-2006, 06:47 PM
flood flood is offline
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Nothing to add, but I will say that my sister is convinced that the stray cats outside call out her name.
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  #40  
Old 01-21-2006, 07:24 PM
norinew norinew is offline
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Y'know, my FIL used to insist that his cat Sylvester said "Out", and I never really believed him; chalked it up to his general quirkiness and possibly impending senility. However, after reading this thread, I'm more inclined to believe him.

Our cat doesn't respond much to words (more to gestures), but definitely has different "cat words" for different things.
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Old 01-21-2006, 07:35 PM
elelle elelle is offline
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Polycarp, what a relief to see your post! My kitties were orphans, and I bottle fed them , so there's a close bond. They all respond to their individual names, not to the other's names. They also definitely know the word NO.

Last week, the big male kitty, 3 years old, was wanting to go out in the middle of the night. I told him NO. He got mighty pissed off, scratching at the door, and then let out a mighty "OWWWWWWWWTTTT", with a T sound at the end. Kept doing it, too. I then let him out, wondering if I was imagining it, because I've had cats all my life, and had never had a cat vocalize like that.

One variable is that, since I raised/nursed these cats from teenies, they really are bonded to me, different than other cats I've had. They followed me more closely as kittens, and there was a learning bond when tiny. I would vocalize "Ouuuuuttt?' , in an extended cat sounding sense when opening the door to let them out.

Never before last week did I hear the fruits of that. It creeped me out a good bit, he sounded so human in vocal. Next time, I'm going to have to tape it. Freaky kitty.
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