Take the 2-minute tour ×
Pets Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for pet owners, caretakers, breeders, veterinarians, and trainers. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I have a cat that seems to get upset every time I joke about giving him away. He won't even get near me and he won't let me carry him.

Do they, like, read our body languages or something?

share|improve this question

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Caveat: this is all based on my experience with cats.

They can learn to associate certain sounds (words) with particular concepts. My cats know what the words "feed the cats" mean. It's hard to say what their effective vocabulary is, but they do understand some words.

They are also very sensitive to tone of voice and body language - given how much of a cat's communication occurs via body language this is hardly surprising. Every cat I've lived with knew when it was being teased or laughed at, and all of them hated it (I think this is why people say cats are "proud" - they really do not like being teased or laughed at).

If I had to guess, I'd say that your cat recognizes from your body language and tone that

  1. You're speaking to/about him; and
  2. You're teasing him.

He doesn't like it.

(Oh, all the cats I've had figured out fairly quickly that "I'm sorry" means I'm trying to make up with them. I don't know how that translates to communications and mental states, but actually saying "I'm sorry" will get me forgiven (they stop avoiding me or shunning me) by the cat I offended faster than not saying it).

share|improve this answer
I really have a hard time believing animals have a concept of grudges. I feel like they live moment to moment, based of learned responses and I don't believe they have the mental capacity to track grudges like that. Maybe that sometimes you scold them for something, but not whether you're sorry. –  TankorSmash Jul 18 '14 at 16:13
@TankorSmash - cats certainly get upset for a period of time and mine have always recognized a "conciliation" action. They will forget/forgive pretty quickly (several hours to a day or so, depending on the cat) if I don't apologize, but they're a lot quicker when I do. I don't pretend to know what's going on in their minds when they do this. –  Kate Paulk Jul 18 '14 at 16:17
What we would call a grudge is just a matter of memory. This doesn't take a lot of mental capacity. Cats have excellent memory, and if they associate something with a remembered bad thing, they react again. For example, cats hide when the carrier comes out, because the last time, you got in the car (bad) and went to the vet (more bad). –  Oldcat Jul 18 '14 at 17:26

This is all based on my personal experiences with pets as well...

I'm off at college now but I have a couple of cats at my parents house that are "mine." They've shown to at least know when we are talking about them, and whether it's positive or negative. There was an incident when one of the cats had some, well, distressed anal glands, and he still gets visibly upset when we joke about that and call him "big pus butt"

On the note of dogs, Mine also show some indication that they know a bit of what we are talking about. I have a shepardy-mutt thing that doesn't like to be called "fat" (even in a loving voice) and a boarder collie that got embarrassed recently when I was recounting a story about her having poop stuck in her fur over the phone.

While it's not hard evidence, it is probably safe to say some pets have an idea when we are talking about them, and can probably deduce the tone. It'd be an interesting thing to study!

Interesting note, just as Kate Paulk said, "I'm sorry" gets me forgiven with my cats too, whether I stepped on them or offended them some other way. I think this may be based on body language primarily (and perhaps the words after they learn them?) as I either pick them up/pet them (if I stepped on them) or act guilty/put my head next to them where they're sitting (in the case I offended them)

share|improve this answer
Tone of voice and body language all together –  Oldcat Jul 18 '14 at 17:27

No... they have not even the vaguest clue what you're talking about. They do not understand words and don't even want to try to understand words.

They do get sounds, tone of voice, body language. If you make consistent sounds and signals for some things they will learn those.

But you could say horrible things about them in a nice tone of voice and they would take it in a happy way. Likewise you could say nice things in a bad tone of voice and they would take it negatively.

This doesn't mean they can't learn or don't get concepts... just they have no interest in our language. One of my cats just made a territorial incursion (the basement is exclusively for my first two cats, the rest of the house is shared but the basement is "theirs") without too much signaling on my part I got her to leave quickly (without yelling, harsh tones, or any of that).

share|improve this answer

No, I am a human and often I do not "get" what people sometimes talk about. Certainly your pet would not. Animals have a completely different brain structure which prevents them from understanding us except on a limited level. Perhaps you are finding a correlation which is due to an unaccounted variable.

In the bellow example of Clever Hans the horse responded based on a learned behavior but learned nothing beyond the instinctual response.

Clever Hans (in German, der Kluge Hans) was an Orlov Trotter horse that was claimed to have been able to perform arithmetic and other intellectual tasks.

After a formal investigation in 1907, psychologist Oskar Pfungst demonstrated that the horse was not actually performing these mental tasks, but was watching the reaction of his human observers. Pfungst discovered this artifact in the research methodology, wherein the horse was responding directly to involuntary cues in the body language of the human trainer, who had the faculties to solve each problem. The trainer was entirely unaware that he was providing such cues.1 In honour of Pfungst's study, the anomalous artifact has since been referred to as the Clever Hans effect and has continued to be important knowledge in the observer-expectancy effect and later studies in animal cognition. Hans was studied by the famous German philosopher and psychologist Carl Stumpf in the early 20th century. Stumpf was observing the sensational phenomena of the horse, which also added to his impact on phenomenology.

-wiki clever Hans

share|improve this answer
I don't think this should be downvoted, the wording might be clumsy but the gist is that animals don't get it and why should they when people can frequently not understand each other using a common language (let alone no common language). It is similar to my answer but using different logic and evidence. –  Dan S Jul 19 '14 at 16:18

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.