Many people think cats just say, “meow” or “mew,” but the more time I’ve spent with them, the more I realize how much they understand, and that they some- times use actual words. Beginning with Annabelle, a black part-Persian my family had for about fifteen years, I began to notice just how good communication can be between cats and people.
She came to live with my husband, Rick, and me when she was about nine, and already quite experienced. When we wanted her to go outside, we’d simply say, “Out,” and she got the message. One day, when she was relaxing on the floor, I gave her the command when we needed for her to go out, expecting her to immediately obey, and she responded with, “No.” (It wasn’t a clear word, but I knew what she meant.)
Slightly taken aback by her lack of respect, I said, “Annabelle, out.”
She turned her head toward me and blatantly repeated, “No.”
Hardly believing her impertinence, I again said, “Annabelle, out!”
This time she said, “No” so emphatically, she moved her head to make sure I understood, then she nonchalantly licked her paw as if the matter were settled. I finally got my way, but not without a stream of mumbled words as she trudged toward the door. She liked going outside sometimes, including when Rick and I went for a walk. Sometimes one of us would say mention going for one, then Annabelle would be at the door, waiting. She could keep up with us all the way to the end of the street and back. We couldn’t figure out how she knew we were about to leave, but she probably thought, You said you were going for a walk, didn’t you?
Years later, after we’d acquired a Siamese, I knew Coco was intelligent, but he sometimes amazed me. When he’d gotten a little older, he would sometimes say, “I want” when he desired to go outside or when he needed food. One day I called him when he was outside, and was just about to close the door when he showed up several yards from the house. He said with clarity, “Rail?” (D’s seem to be difficult for cats to pronounce.)
Another time, he sniffed a spot on the floor, and I wondered if a ladybug had come inside, since we’d been having trouble with them. I asked, “What is it, Coco? A ladybug?”
Not only did he understand, but he casually turned away from the spot and said, “Water,” almost as well as a person would have.
The other cat we had at the time, Velvet, liked to sit next to me outside. I would look down at her and say, “Velvet,” then she’d stare up and say something back without fail. We did this regularly, and I finally understood that she was saying, “Dale” in her own way. She got what I was doing.
Velvet was on a diet and couldn’t have dry food for a while, so we kept it in a cabinet most of the time. One day Coco let me know he wanted something, and I thought he wanted out, but that wasn’t it. I kept saying, “What do you want, Coco?”
Finally, with great effort, he formed his mouth into an O and squeezed out, “Food.”
Although the “F” wasn’t distinct, I knew what he was saying. He wanted some dry food. I got it for him, and he was satisfied. I guess he’d heard me say it so many times when I fed him, he knew what it was.
Years later, when we had two Siamese cats, they would sometimes go into the hall and talk to each other in a secret language I like to call “Catonese.” The exchange didn’t sound that friendly, but they seemed to understand each other, although I never figured out what it was all about. The larger Siamese also said, “I want,” just like Coco. A lot. In fact, it wasn’t unusual for him to say it several times in one day. He usually wanted food, but occasionally he desired attention or a door opened so he could look outside.
I try to use the same words over and over when addressing the cats, so they can capture their meaning. When I occasionally speak a little French to them, they look at me like, “What on Earth are you saying?” They can definitely tell the difference. I’m glad I finally realize just how much they understand. It makes me appreciate them even more.