Communicating with cats and dogs

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On twitter a few days ago:

Today's Liberty Meadows:

A search on YouTube suggests that the featured cat video has been around for a while, and that it's not the only one Out There — though most of them are about receptive signs, not expressive signs. And the dachshund lexicon seems unfair with respect to the expressive abilities of dogs in general — we're not always so good at figuring out what other humans want, at least in environments without thought balloons.

For a more general take on the issues involved, see "Signs or symbols? Words or tools?", 6/15/2004.


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    April 21, 2019 @ 7:10 am

    Whether the cat is truly using sign language or not, I do not think that there can be any doubt that the cat is not only seeking to communicate but is communicating very successfully. A charming video that has brought a broad smile to my face.

  2. Gruen said,

    April 21, 2019 @ 7:44 am

    @Philip Taylor The video itself is harmless, it's just unfortunate that it's presented such that it perpetuates the common misconception that sign language is a complicated semaphore rather than a natural language and/or that animals have a serious capacity for language. Of course this is far from the gravest example of misrepresentation of animal communication…

  3. Gruen said,

    April 21, 2019 @ 7:54 am

    *Natural language, without the article, of course: it would be pretty poor to spread one canard while criticising another.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    April 21, 2019 @ 12:34 pm

    From an old friend who has had a succession of dachshunds her whole life:

    I was amused by Language Log's cat sign language.

    Once while visiting with a widowed neighbor, I happened to sit where I had a straight view to the front door. The door bell rang and suddenly a cat ran to the door. I told the neighbor that I thought there was something wrong with the cat.

    She laughed and asked "is she barking"? Well, yes, the cat just stood there, hair on end, opening and closing her mouth silently. Then the neighbor explained. Her husband had presented her years previously with a kitten and a Dachshund puppy. The pair were close buddies. But then husband and eventually the dog died.

    The neighbor said after the dog's demise the cat simply took over all of the dog's "duties" such as barking when the mail or visitors came, and the way she expressed food or water needs. So what I witnessed was indeed the cat "barking" at the arriving mailman.

  5. Mark P said,

    April 21, 2019 @ 3:52 pm

    The cartoon is unfair in another way. Dog expressions are mostly not facial. You have to look at the whole dog, including the tail. And they are context sensitive. A dog might have the same expression if you're holding a leash or if you're holding a dog treat. In the first case, it's pretty clear that the message is, "Let's for for a walk!" In the second case, it's pretty clear that it's, "Dog treat! Gimme gimme!"

  6. The Other Mark P said,

    April 21, 2019 @ 4:22 pm

    You have to look at the whole dog, including the tail.

    And movement. Our dog would indicate that he wanted a walk by walking away, then coming back, walking away again, etc. He never did that if he wanted food, which he did with the same facial expression but walking towards his food bowl.

  7. maidhc said,

    April 25, 2019 @ 4:03 am

    Dogs understand pointing, and cats do not. Or perhaps they do, but prefer not to admit it.

    Our cat is not allowed on the dining table, but we tolerate her on the chairs. But she wants to go up in the windowsill, which needs a temporary paw on the table. We tolerate that, but when she comes down from the window she pauses on the the table, at which my wife shouts "Down! Down!" and points to the floor. She then jumps from the table to the floor. Does she understand pointing?

    Our previous cat (male) used to love to chase a laser pointer. Now we have two females. The smarter one chased the dot for a few days, then caught on and just looks at the pointer in your hand. The other one, not so smart, never really caught on to the concept at all.

    Cats can work out all kinds of communication if it leads to them getting fed. I guess if their owner was deaf they would figure out that meowing doesn't work, and go for something else. Cats are pretty resourceful, but remember that their brains are smaller than your fist. They can communicate the things that interest them, but they are not going to get close to what we think of as language.

  8. Viseguy said,

    April 28, 2019 @ 7:57 pm

    House rabbits also communicate with a single significant look, although the possibilities for their owners (read: subjects) to choose from are fewer: Want hay, Want pellets, Want lettuce, Want snuggles — and, sometimes, Want pasta Bolognese, Want Scotch, Want whatever-you're-eating-or-drinking…. The exception is, "I vahnt to be alone", communicated by the significant absence-of-bunny, the bunny having concealed themselves *somewhere* in the house. The great part about having a rabbit as a pet is never having to consider among the possibilities: Want to be walked at 7:00 am.

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