Cat Speak: Beyond the Lolcat

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Almost anyone who has ever had a cat "knows" it speaks to them. Our cats take on personalities and little anthropomorphized lives, but never actually say a word. Some people think our ability to communicate with them is due to a kind of telepathy.

But really something much more basic and comprehensive is actually going on. If you think about what we've learned about behavior, learning, and conditioning it becomes pretty apparent that their way of speaking to us is very much related to rewards like food or affection. But most cats are pretty independent and self-reliant, why communicate, why not just force humans to do what you want like this cat?

Some scientists now believe that beyond simple back and forth communication, cats are actually manipulating us in interesting ways. Again this sort of behavior can be seen as closely related to conditioning, but it is interesting to note the rather ingenious and complex way this happens, particularly with cats.

Scientists have discovered that cats are very sensitive to their owners and work out rather complex relationships with them. These relationships are remarkably similar to the nonverbal relationships mothers have with their babies. (there are a few of these, just google!) :)

This makes so much sense to me because we spend so much time with them and they are dependent on us for so much, it seems perfectly logical that they could easily pick up on these verbal cues and become conditioned to communicate in this blatant way. Cats also have a large vocabulary and it wouldn't surprise me if "Fluffy" sounded the cry in one way that'd we'd "know" what she was saying even though it all happens without us even thinking about it. Both the cat and the person have become conditioned to respond with similar vocal sounds, actions, or body language. It's a real give and take, just like most relationships.



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I think it's possible that this goes beyonds cats; I think it could count for dogs too. I always know what my dog wants when she barks or starts bugging me. I think people, as well as their cats, are picking up on certain behavioral cues without even realizing it.

Yeah, I just focused on cats because I'd read more research done on cats specifically. I think the difference is pack mentality vs. independence though, it's a subtle but different sort of dynamic.

I really liked reading this blog! It's amazing how complex interactions can be between people and their pets. I like how you analyzed this through the lens of psychology. I agree that the pack mentality of dogs would differ from cats: it seems that dogs are pre-programmed to function within a social group, whereas cats don't seem to be predisposed in that way.

Wow!! This was really interesting!
I can definitely agree with the observation that they may be appealing to our caring nature, wether they "know" it or not.
It also seems that the conditioning that takes place in this relationship is two-way. Not only are the cats conditioned to manipulate us in certain ways, we are conditioned to respond to them also. This especially takes the form of negative reinforcement: I mean removing their pleading cries usually is a good incentive for me to feed them!

I can relate to this blog post, as a cat owner, it was very interesting! One of our cats passed away last year and our other cat is now picking up different verbal cues, she's much more vocal, attentive, and "needy". I'm not sure if this is because of the loss of our other cat, or if she is just picking up new response and actions in this new environment.

I thought this was so cute! I don't have a cat, but I do have a dog! He is the cutest thing ever! I think my cat and my family relate to what you're saying very well. We are like his family/parents because we feed him, give him shelter, and play with him.

Not only that, but he's very responsive to particular words that we've trained him to be to. My sister and I trained him in English, but my parents aren't fluent English speakers so they speak Hmong to him. Surprisingly, he's even begun to understand them! It's really amazing! He has been very well conditioned to respond to us.

This made me laugh! Haha I have always wondered if dogs and cats or other animals have thoughts about us all, and i really do agree with that we have relationships with our pets. Also, here is a really funny article on cats and dogs and their thoughts...

Oh, absolutely. My cat comes when I call and plays fetch. It is really weird, but I feel like that my cat and I have conversations and she knows what I am saying. I am fully aware that this will make me sound like the crazy cat lady, but it's true!

I LOVE CATS! I have always recognized cats for being selfish animals who love attention and work for it. But like you said, cats rely on their owners to be taken care of and when most cats are moderately charming and lazy, they need to boost their activity in order to make the point. Cats seem to be very observant, watching us as we sleep and as we move around the house-this might help them to manipulate their owners to get what they need or want.

I loved this article because I can totally relate to it. I have had a cat and currently have two dogs. It is crazy how it seems like my dogs know exactly what I am saying to them and do everything I ask them to do. I know a lot of this comes from training and reinforcement but to some extent, when my dog looks at me and tilts his head making gestures while I talk, it just seems like too much to credit to just his training. I also believe there is a special kind of relationship that forms between a pet and owner. It seems to be more than just them relying on you to provide the basic necessities that they need to live.

I three dogs an a cat. My cat knows exactly what to do to get my attention when she wants food. She will go up to the pantry door and jump at the handle until it opens ( the door creeks a little ) and sits by her food until someone comes into the pantry. There's something about the look in her eyes that says "feed me, I'm on the verge of death..." I don't know what it is about cats... My dogs just lay around until I ask them if they want to go outside or if they want to eat. I swear, it's much easier to have a conversation with a dog than it is to have one with a cat... My dogs actually listen to me and react.

I'm pretty positive that one of my cats is speaking directly to me when he purposely knocks items off of various surfaces. It's not that it just 'happens' to fall off while he's playing with whatever is on the table either - he will look at me (to make sure I can see him), then he'll nudge the item a bit towards the edge, stop, look at me again, and repeat this process until he ultimately pushes whatever it is onto the floor, upon which time he looks at me for a final time as if to say "now what are you going to do?". Our other cat just pushes stuff around to play with it and doesn't care if we are watching or not (in fact, he tends to stop if we ARE looking at him). Cats are wicked smart and slightly diabolical and I definitely believe that they have learned to manipulate us with their behavior.

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This page contains a single entry by snide076 published on March 5, 2012 9:00 PM.

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