Does My Cat Understand Me?

Or is it all gibberish? 💬

cat with thought bubble

Do you ever call your cat’s name and watch him stare back at you blankly without moving a muscle? If so, you might wonder if your cat knows you’re trying to get his attention (or if he’s just choosing to ignore you).

It turns out that cats do understand human words, but they don’t understand them the way we do.

The Dodo spoke to Nora Glover, a cat care and training expert and the founder and
editor in chief at Catademy, and Dr. Jonathan Roberts, a remote veterinarian with Pet Keen, to find out if your cat knows what you’re saying to him.

Do cats understand human language?

“Technically, cats can’t understand human words because their cognitive skills are not advanced enough,” Glover told The Dodo.

Cats understand language the same way that we understand what they’re trying to say when they meow. They know that we’re talking to them, but they don’t know exactly what we’re saying.

“This is comparable to when cats meow at us,” Dr. Roberts told The Dodo. “We recognize they are communicating but do not understand what they are saying.”

Similar to how you can tell that your cat is happy when he’s kneading you and purring, your cat can pick up on cues from your body language and tone of voice.

It can also seem like cats don’t understand people because they aren’t as motivated to perform for their owners as dogs are. But your cat can recognize when you talk to him. He might just choose to ignore it.

How many words do cats understand?

Cats can understand certain words, but their understanding comes from associating words or sounds with objects.

“Scientists say that cats can link vocalizations of 25 to 40 words with particular objects, actions and people,” Glover said. “Their understanding of words is different from ours, though. The thing is that cats can’t categorize sounds and tell words from other sounds. They memorize all repetitive or rare but alerting sounds and the sensual responses in their bodies and minds.”

So when you go to the kitchen and tell your cat it’s dinnertime, your cat may come running to you because he associates the sound of the word “dinnertime” with getting food — not because he actually knows what dinnertime means.

Do cats like being talked to?

Cats definitely like being talked to, and talking to your cat is actually a good way to bond with him.

“Cats are highly social animals and really enjoy a communicative interaction,” Dr. Roberts said. “Not only does it strengthen the bond between pet and owner, but it has a positive impact on stress and mental health for both you and your cat.”

Studies have shown that cats can even recognize their owners’ voices and respond accordingly.

“Cats tend to only respond to their owners' voices and will only pay attention to voices they are familiar with,” Dr. Roberts said.

And even though your cat won’t know exactly what you’re saying, he can pick up on your emotions, so you should try to be positive when interacting with him so that he feels comfortable around you.

“Cats respond better to a soft and calm voice and can easily interpret your mood,” Dr. Roberts said.

Do cats know their names?

Cats can recognize their names, but similar to other words, they don’t know the meaning of them. Because you call your cat when you feed him or pet him, he associates his name with those things rather than knowing it as a label for himself.

“It seems that cats can realize that the sound of their name belongs to them but surely can’t categorize it as their name,” Glover said. “It’s just one of the sounds that they recognize as calling.”

This is why if you have a few cats, they might all come when you call one of their names. They associate the sound of any cat’s name with food or petting.

For example, a study showed that cats in a cat café had more trouble distinguishing their names from those of other cats they lived with, likely because people will call multiple cats’ names in the café and give treats or pets to whichever cat comes to them.

“If you have multiple cats, as I do, you may notice that sometimes they all come when you call only one,” Glover said. “At the same time, they all may sometimes decide not to react if they have a more attractive stimulus at the moment!”

If it seems like your cat doesn’t know his name because he doesn’t come when you call him, pay close attention to his body language next time you say his name. Cats will often turn their head or ears rather than actually coming to you.

How to teach your cat his name

You can teach your cat to respond to his name by calling him and giving him a treat when he responds.

“Pick a treat that your cat loves and choose an environment that is calm and free of distractions,” Dr. Roberts said. “Call out your cat's name in a clear, calm voice. When your cat responds to you, whether it is with a vocalization, ear flick or walking towards you, reward them with a treat.”

And if you try really hard, you might even be able to teach your cat to talk — like this cat who basically speaks the same language as his dad.