Humans and cats: two different species with a common language that bridges the divide between them—is such a thing even possible? Up until now, science has not been able to provide an answer. Yet many cat owners are already persuaded that their own cats can speak. As a cat fancier, I am completely convinced and insist: of course they can speak! But there is also the scientist in me, and she says: I am going to investigate! So it is hardly surprising that I started to examine the thesis “cats have a language” using the scientific method and tools of my discipline, phonetics.
My scientific interest is admittedly directed toward the verbal expressions of cats. Are there “words” that all cats have in common? Can we even call them words? And is there a language that we as humans can understand independently from a cat’s other behavior, something that we as humans can study, understand and apply?
But before we start our scientific investigations, let us get to know our five “subjects,” the five cats with whom my husband and I share our home: Donna, Rocky, Turbo, Vimsan and Kompis. They are the source of our happiness and the reason for my scientific interest.
I am an early riser. Even if I am still sleepy, I get out of bed and make breakfast for the cats. This morning ritual is the first chance every day to talk to my cats and see how they are doing. Like any other ritual, the breakfast ceremony has a structure.
First, I greet Vimsan, who usually sleeps on the couch in our guest room. While I fill her bowl with food, she hurries toward me, her tail held high, nuzzles and rubs against my legs, jumps onto the sink and mews softly, as though she wants to say “Good morning, It’s nice that you are up already. I am hungry.”
“Good morning, sweetheart,” I say. Most of the time, she leaps for joy, nudges my hand with her head and trills. Brrrt. “Thank you.”
The triplets—Turbo, Rocky and Donna—are up next. They stand expectantly in front of the kitchen door and greet me with soft trills. Again, brrrt, but this time in the sense of “Good morning!” Turbo, our gourmand, who is always up for a treat or a meal, jumps straight onto the counter in the kitchen, trills, purrs and rubs his head against my hand while I prepare his food. I speak softly to all three: “Hi, my darlings. It’s great that you are up already. Breakfast will be ready in a second.”
Rocky stands on his hind legs, and lifts himself up with his front paws against my knees, where he drawls a me-aw, which I take to mean “Oh, that smells good, I want some, too!”
Donna springs gracefully onto a kitchen chair, looks at me expectantly and finally produces an impatient, demanding mrhrnaaauuu-hi! Finally, all three of them are in their places and chew eagerly, dedicated to their task.
Kompis has spent the night on his favorite blanket on the footstool in the hall. He stretches and expands to his considerable size, which stands in stark contrast to his bright (with acoustically high resonances) baby meow, mmeeeheee. “Don’t forget about me, I am hungry, too!” When I put his bowl in its place, he rubs his head against my leg and trills softly, “Thanks!” “You’re welcome, my friend,” I answer and gently pet his neck.
Then I go out into the garden, where one of the neighbor’s cats, Graywhite, resides in her new basket in front of the kitchen window. “Good morning, Graywhite,” I say. “Did you sleep well?” When she sees me, she stretches slowly and casually climbs the woodpile with the reasonable expectation that I will put her breakfast on top of it. Graywhite is still very reserved in her behavior with me. I approach her with the necessary caution and try to pet her gently on the forehead. She protests immediately, Mee, mee! “No, I do not want that today.” “Okay, sorry, I just wanted to say good morning,” I say, and go back into the house, where the other cats are waiting for me. The ritual is concluded. All of the cats are satisfied. My day can begin.
The morning ritual with my cats is always interesting. It puts me in a good mood and makes my day more relaxed. Our exchanges, our way of saying “good morning” to one another and of having breakfast together is simply the best way of beginning the day. Even if the procedure always follows the same pattern, the cats continue to surprise me with slight variations. It is always a mixture of friendly and cheerful sounds which vary in their nuances. By now, I can interpret them really well. As a result, I understand my cats better and better.
How It All Began
You have surely figured it out already. I am a fan of cats—a kattatant, as we say in my language, Swedish. I cannot imagine life without cats. And it has been that way for as long as I can remember.
So I have always looked for, and found, opportunities to get to know cats better, to observe them and to study them. Because I am a phonetician by profession, that is to say, I study the sounds of human speech for a living, I have primarily studied the verbal expressions—the vocalizations—of cats when they interact with other cats as well as with people. The great diversity of different sounds and their nuances is astonishing and differs from cat to cat. The study of this diversity is unending.
And yet there are general patterns in the sounds of almost all the cats I have met. My experience and my discoveries are summarized here and may serve as a kind of phrase book for other cat fanciers. It might help them understand their cats better.
When we understand what our cats are saying better because we are able to listen more precisely, our mutual understanding will be greater. Our relationship to our cats and their relationship to us will be more intense. We will be able to understand and fulfill their needs better and more quickly.
I have loved cats for as long as I can remember. Although we did not have cats at home when I was a child, I asked for one every year, both for Christmas and for my birthday, though I only ever got stuffed animals…
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I was able to invite real, living cats into my home. I got my first feline companions from friends and relatives, who either did not want to or could not keep them anymore.
That is how I made the acquaintance of the friendly black-and-white and slightly stiff-legged tomcat Fox, often referred to as “Fox the Hyper” by his previous owner. His nickname was no coincidence. He was always getting agitated about the smallest little things. But as soon as he arrived at my place and left his carrier to probe the terrain of my two-bedroom apartment, he was friendly, gentle and curious. He purred, tried out the food I had put in his new food bowl, made himself comfortable on my bed—and fell asleep.
It was love at first sight, and we lived happily together for many years. When the day that all animal lovers fear came, I had to take a last trip with my old and very sick friend and have him put to sleep. Although I suffered, a life without cats was unthinkable for me. So my husband, Lars, and I took in “vacation cats” and played cat sitters while the cats’ owners were away.
Among our favorite guests were the Birman females, Ludmilla and Estrella, who were as elegant as they were distant, as well as the graceful and highly intelligent gray tabby, Kisseson.
The somewhat fearful but very social beautiful fat black male cat Vincent stayed with us two or three times a year for a few years. Because I liked him so much (and because he hated car rides and carriers so much), we often extended his stays with us in that I returned him to his owners much later than planned.
After a few years, he was finally able to come live with us as our roommate. For seven years, we lived together, loved him, took care of him daily, fed him according to dietary recommendations, and injected him with insulin (he had come down with diabetes) twice a day. The closer he came to his end, the more medicine he needed. At the end we had to give him nine different pills twice a day. He hated it. We needed all of our creativity to convince him to swallow them. The trick that finally did it was the treat afterward.
With Vincent sleeping next to me on his blanket on my desk, I studied linguistics and phonetics, and wrote my doctoral thesis. When he passed away in 2010, we were in despair. I suffered as I had years earlier when Fox passed on. My husband, who is also a great cat fancier, swore, “No more cats. Never again.”
Three Cat Kids
“Never again?” Just a few months after Vincent left us, the longing was there again. I started to coax the two neighbor cats—who often passed through our backyard—into our house and fed them treats. I looked at ads for cats that were available for adoption almost every day, and stumbled on a post online about three young black siblings that needed a new home.
They lived in the shed of a nearby community garden, and I was able to convince my husband that we should at least visit them and think about adopting one or two. When we arrived on a cold winter day, the first snowstorm of the season was sweeping through our city. The woman from the local humane society, who had been feeding them every day, had a bad cold. The three little ones were so charming and graceful. We fell for them. But which of the three should we take home with us? And which should we leave in the ice-cold shed? Would we have the heart for it? We tried to simplify the matter by asking the woman from the humane society to decide for us, but she volleyed gracefully: we should take all three home with us, just until they found a home for the others.
The result was already clear on the drive home. “We are keeping all three,” my husband told me. That sealed it. The next day, the three cuddly kittens came home with us.
It was the first time we had had such young kittens at home. Soon, my husband and I felt like the parents of young children. There was always something to do. In addition to the normal feeding, litterbox cleaning and vacuuming (three black cats that frolic and play throughout the house lose a lot of black hair), there was always something that the kittens had knocked over or pulled off a shelf.
Even though we were constantly on the move, we did not regret a thing. Donna, Rocky and Turbo (the woman from the humane society had named them already, though they got a lot of pet names from us as time went on), led us on any number of adventures. We were lucky that we always scraped by in the end.
Once on a cold, rainy evening, when we forgot to close a window upstairs, Donna and Turbo somehow managed to climb onto the roof. Rocky wanted to go after them but we caught him just in time. Hours later we captured the two escapees in a rainy nighttime search-and-rescue operation.
Another time we simply could not find Rocky, who is particularly shy. After hours of searching we finally found him hiding in the fireplace. We spent hours coaxing him out, but did not notice at first that he was not just naturally black. Only after he had left soot marks all over the house did we realize the scale of the catastrophe. And that was not the end of our cat adventures.
Three Become Four
A beautiful big red tomcat, who had not been neutered, often passed through our garden. We just called him “Red.” His reticence did not stop him from marking our yard as his territory. Logically, anyone whom he identified as a disobedient interloper was chased away. Obviously, he made a great effort to convince the neighbor cats (both neutered females) of his rights. We assumed he had a home. Two years later, we found him injured. A little later, he seemed to be healed. We continued to assume that someone took care of him. Then he seemed to be doing worse again. This time it did not seem like anyone was caring for him.
We packed him up and took him to the vet, but it was too late; the injuries were too serious. Plus, he had developed a tumor. The vet had to put him to sleep. We were in despair. Why had we not seen that he was homeless? Why had we waited so long before we took him to the veterinarian? It was a hard blow for me. I swore to myself that I would never wait again. I would take any cat that seemed to be sick or injured straight to the vet, without wasting time figuring out who the owner was. I had not listened to him, I had not understood him.
A little while later, I built a cat flap for the neighbor’s cats, so that they could come warm themselves in our basement in the winter. I filled the small heated room in our basement with food, blankets and water. The next morning, I went to see whether Black-and-White and Graywhite had been to their new sanctuary and discovered their food, but when I went down to the basement, I found a surprise. A totally unfamiliar small gray tabby cat had made herself comfortable on the windowsill and stared at me, her big dark eyes filled with fear and curiosity.
I did not know what to do—I had to get to work. Maybe the cat had just stopped by for a visit. But when I went back to the basement after work, she was still there. I was able to pet her cautiously, and when I did, I discovered a serious large wound on her right hind leg. The whole leg was one large open wound. The fur had been almost totally ripped away and hung on in strips. It was already infected and looked terrible. To the vet! We were lucky to get an appointment early the next morning. The treatment lasted the whole day. Luckily, nothing was broken. The wound could not be stitched; too much fur and skin were gone. One could only hope that the wound would heal itself.
We called the police and put ads looking for the cat’s owner in the paper and on the web. Everyone who got in touch went away disappointed. She was not their cat. In the meanwhile, we had given her a name. “Vimsan,” Swedish for bum-wiggler, because her rear end shook with every step she took, a clear consequence of her injury.
Vimsan is a great cat—but only when she wants to be. She likes to play and cavort with us, but she cannot stand other cats. She likes to lie on our laps and cuddle, but otherwise hates being touched. She never ever wants to be picked up, and if you do anyway, she will bite lickety-split. But we still love this small striped gray-brown cat with the big scar on her leg and the too-short tail (she must have lost the tip in an earlier life).
Four Become Five
Vimsan often got into fights with other cats in our neighborhood. Black-and-White and Graywhite were indubitably among her enemies. When a young black tomcat with white paws and a white chest and belly showed up in our garden sometime in the winter, there was a fight almost every day. The young unneutered tomcat was extremely interested in Vimsan, but she did not want anything to do with him. There were fights high up in our apple tree, in our hedge and on our lawn. One day, the newcomer showed up with large wounds on his cheeks that just would not heal. He did not seem to have a home. We took him to the vet, cleaned and treated his wounds for several weeks, and looked for his owner. But nobody responded to our ads.
The cat had become a good friend by then. He liked being with us while we worked in the garden or drank a coffee outside. We called him “Kompis” (Swedish for buddy or friend). And—you guessed it—we kept him. By now his wounds have healed and he has gotten a bit fat, but we love him just the way he is.
Although he is our biggest cat, he has the smallest baby voice, it is even higher in pitch (melody) than the voice of our smallest, Vimsan.
With that, it was decided: our family of five cats is complete with Kompis.