American vet claims to have decoded the feline language

Cat meow
Cat meow. Photo: Geoff Sloan
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An American veterinarian, Dr Weitzman, claims to have decoded the feline language (come on Dr. we know already 😉 ). Gary Weitzman believes that each cat has more than a dozen vocalisations, each of which maintains a fixed meaning for the individual cat.  He set out his theories in a book called How to Speak Cat.

Cat meows are solely used for talking to humans because each cat communicates with each other through body language. Each meow is different for individual cats. This is not entirely true because kittens make vocal communications with their mother. Also cats hiss and make other aggressive sounds towards each other under antagonistic situations.

Dr Weitzman confirms what we have already learnt namely that “cats only vocalise to people” but as stated this is generalising.

“There are probably one or two dozen different vocalisations per cat that we would classify as ‘meow‘.  However, you couldn’t get Webster’s dictionary or a Fodor’s translation cat-to-English or English-to-cat and define those meows, because they’re individual for every single cat.”

He says that there are crucial differences between how dogs and cats communicate.  Dr Weitzman has written another book entitled How to Speak Dog.

People who care for both cats and dogs will not be surprised at the different way cats and dogs communicate through vocalisations.

“We can train both species – but, for the most part, we train dogs to respond to what we want them to do,” he said.  “Cats, on the other hand, actually train us to respond to what they want us to do.  [The] meow vocalisations mean specific and consistent things – the favourite being the 4:30 am ‘gimme breakfast’. You will actually be amazed by how consistent [the language] is.”

However, not all cat communication through vocalisation is so specific to the individual.  Dr Weitzman remarks that there are some well-known signals which remain the same between cats.  Most of us know the “tail up” body language communication which is described as a “how do you do?” sign. It is a friendly greeting; almost a smile and a handshake.

Most of us who are experienced cat owners know about the slow blink which Dr Weitzman claims represent “affection and acceptance and is really quite a gorgeous, subtle, physical movement that they do to show that they’re comfortable with us.”  This one we definitely know about and it is an example of feline body language which we love to see.

I’m pleased to note that Dr Weitzman wants to challenge the stigma of the “crazy cat lady”.  He also wants to demonstrate that anyone who thinks that cats are aloof animals who use people for their own ends is incorrect. The fact that they vocally communicate with us proves it.

How will you know that they value humans as more than just servants to meet their own hands?  Dr Weitzman advises us to look for certain key meows.  A frequently used one he said is “feed me breakfast”.  Then there’s “play with me”. A guaranteed sign of feline affection towards you is: “I want to go out.”

Here are some examples of how to speak cat (tongue in cheek) – I am not sure whether these fun examples come from his book or the Times journalist from which I have based this article:

Meugh “I have sicked up part of a chaffinch on the guest duvet.”

Meouigh “Please give me better food, or I will move to the student house where they let me clean their dishes.”

Meow “I have had Congress with the feral Tom. Your husband is right; you should have had me spayed.”

Meowmeow “I will now pretend to like you in order to obtain food. You are an idiot.”

Meeeeeow “I have dug a small hole in the cat litter tray in order to hygienically burry my waste. There is now cat litter all over the kitchen.”

Meooooow “I wish to scratch something. Would you mind awfully if I went to the antique dining table?”

These are fun examples but a genuine meow might mean, “Hello, it is tolerable to see you, I suppose – please take this eviscerated mouth of the side of my affection.” Once again this is a bit of fun but we do know that meowing is a specific vocal communication designed to communicate with humans to make a request.

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9 thoughts on “American vet claims to have decoded the feline language”

  1. Oh Boy, I found another serious error; I must be typing too fast for my brain to catch up.
    I meant to say that this book has nothing that most of us don’t already know!

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  2. I just read a brief article in the Costco Connection about Gary Weitzman,DVM, president and CEO of the San Diego Human Society.
    In looking up his 2 books on How to Speak to Cats/Dogs, I think these may be pretty basic stuff, and something any of us don’t know.

    A couple of things he said in the article that I don’t agree with are that 1)dilated pupils means they’re stressed. My cat’s pupils are dilated much of the time, unless she’s in the sun, or sleepy. 2) that when a cat shows it’s belly to a human, “it’s a trap!”. (BS) When my cat lays on her back, most of the time she wants me to brush or tub her tummy. When I do, she extends up, and closes her eyes in pleasure.

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  3. This is an interesting article and makes one pay close attention to their cat. I think the doctor is mistaken when he says that cats only talk to humans when wanting food. My cats have always spoken to me when they are hungry and want a treat or their bowl is empty. But I have also noticed that they talk to me when I come inside after having been away for a while. It seems that they are telling me about their day, just like I do with my family. I think cats talk to us because we talk to them, not just for food. Their are intelligent beings who are able to learn. Perhaps they have learned to have conversations with us, just not in the human language?

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    • Yes, yhey have a language for conversing with humans. It has developed over thousands of years and is hard-wired in their DNA now. It applies to certain situations. That is the way I see it.

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  4. Michael,
    I was trying to visualize an “eviscerated mouth”, until I realized you meant MOUSE! More on this communication post later. I’ve got a big project I need to keep working on, and Mitzy keeps crying for attention, like it’s of utmost importance that I stop what I’m doing immediately! She’s been this way all morning, and finally she’s napping. I’ve got to work fast before she wakes up!

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  5. I personally believe that just as human parents learn to recognise their baby’s different cries and the specific requirements associated with them, we humans learn to interpet the different meows of our cats and what it is they want.

    Not all cats are vocal with humans. I’ve read that can mean the human has a good understanding of their cat’s body language and fulfills the cat’s request before it needs to resort to asking for it verbally. Of course some cats are chatty by nature, regardless of whether they want something or not 🙂

    I don’t agree with the affection claim for the slow blink. I know that some people regard it as the feline equivalent of blowing a kiss, but many times I’ve seen cats squaring up for a fight, blink and look away in an attempt to diffuse the situation. For me, the slow blink is more like smiling, to show that we are friendly/relaxed and definitely non-threatening.

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    • Perfect, Michele.
      I don’t need any interpreter. I know, exactly, what each cat is telling or asking. I’ll clarify to mean my indoor, indoor/outdoor, and outdoor cats.
      With ferals, I believe that I understand about 5 vocalizations. Mostly, it’s all about body language.

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