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How Cats and Dogs (and Chimpanzees) Speak to Us

Updated: Aug 27, 2023

by Stephen Andrews

If you’ve got a cat or a dog, you’ll probably know just how clever they can be.


They’re masters of communication, using complex sounds, gestures and movements to get what they want from us.


Who can resist the soft purr of a cat when it curls up on your knee for a cuddle? Or the whimpering of a dog when it wants to be fed?


So, even if they can’t use words as we do, they’re pretty successful in letting us know what they want.


Can Chimpanzees chat?


Lots of language experiments have been done with our closest living relatives, primates like chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans.


A chimp called Washoe was ‘adopted’ by two scientists in the USA in 1966 who wanted to study her ability for language development.


Needless to say, their attempts to get Washoe to use English words were a complete failure. However, she was able to learn a simple sign language and would, for example, use the sign she’d been taught for ‘toothbrush’ when she saw a toothbrush.


Similarly, some primates have been able to respond to English phrases that they’ve heard repeatedly, such as ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’. This doesn’t mean, though, that they ‘understand’ them, just that they recognise the familiarity of the sound. (The same happens when you tell your dog to ‘sit’ and it sits down. With cats, who are more independent, this is a bit more difficult!)


But, of course, like all animals, chimpanzees have their own complex languages which they use to ‘talk’ to each other. They don’t need human language.


Behaviours like posture, facial expressions, vocalizations and scent production convey information about how they are feeling, or potential danger.


Dolphins also have their own language, using a particular set of sounds. An interesting thing is that a variation or slight change in one of these can mean radically different things. One sound might mean “Look! There’s some fish up ahead” and its variation might mean “Danger! Let’s get out of here!”


The same thing happens in the English language, For example, ‘bag’ and ‘bug’ sound similar, but mean different things.


Which is why good English pronunciation is so important!


To ‘parrot’ a phrase


Some birds, like parrots, have the ability to imitate phrases that they’ve heard from humans. In Britain, people get pet parrots to say things like, “Who’s a pretty boy, then?”


So, in English, when you ‘parrot’ something someone has said, it means that you’re simply repeating it, without understanding or thinking about its meaning, as in: ‘He doesn’t have an original thought in her head – he just parrots anything Eric says’.


How animals tell us they care


Even if they can’t use words, our pets and other animals speak to us in lots of different ways.


And some of the stories of love and faithfulness are pretty amazing.


You’ll probably have heard the story of Hachikō, the Akita dog who is known as the most faithful dog in the world.


In the 1920’s, his owner, Hidesaburō Ueno would commute daily to work, and Hachikō would leave the house to meet him at the end of the day at Shibuya Station. The pair continued the daily routine until May 21, 1925, when Ueno died at work and never returned to the station.


But each day, for the next 9 years, 9 months and 15 days, Hachikō awaited Ueno's return, appearing precisely when the train Hidesaburō used to catch was due at the station.


Similarly, in 2011, a cat called Jesse walked almost 2,000 miles across Australia to get back home.

Her owners from South Australia located to a new home in the Northern Territory. But soon after the family’s move, Jessie went missing and showed up at their old house over a year later!


As these stories show, it seems that that animals want to keep their conversations with us humans going, no matter what.


Has your pet said anything interesting to you lately?


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