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Curious Kids: Do cats and dogs understand us when we miaow or bark?

2019-02-10 00:00

In partnership with The Conversation, #Trending is bringing you Curious Kids, a series for children in which we ask experts to answer questions from kids.

Do cats and dogs understand humans when they make miaowing or barking noises? (Mila, 11, and Alex, 8)

Quixi Sonntag, lecturer in animal behaviour and welfare, University of Pretoria:

There’s been a lot of research about communication between people and domestic animals such as dogs and cats. But we don’t yet have the answer to your very interesting question.

We don’t know what cats and dogs think or if they understand us when we use their noises.

As a veterinarian and animal behaviourist who studies different kinds of animals, my view is that we’d have to be very good at mimicking miaows and barks if we would really like to be understood by our pets.

Our vocal chords are different to theirs, and they can hear that we make different sounds to what they do.

cute dog put his face on his knees to the man and
Picture: iStock

But we do know that dogs can definitely distinguish between different people’s voices. They’ll know when it’s Mila who’s talking and when it’s Alex.

They’re also sensitive to your tone of voice. They like high-pitched, friendly tones. And did you know that dogs can learn words?

Rico, a Border collie, successfully learnt more than 200 words representing different items. He could pick the correct item from many if asked to fetch one of them.

We do not think that he actually learnt the meaning of the words, but he was good at associating sounds with objects.

When it comes to their own ‘voices’, studies have shown that dogs and cats use different vocal signals to communicate different messages.

Happy kitten likes being stroked by womans hand. T
Picture: iStock

A high-pitched, repetitive bark, for example, may mean your dog is anxious. A low-pitched bark may mean she’s feeling aggressive. Cats use certain sounds while hunting and others when relaxing.

But their voices are just one way in which dogs and cats communicate. They also use body language and tactile gestures – like coming to you for a pat or nudging your hand with their noses – when they want attention. Similarly, people communicate using gestures and facial expressions.

Research has shown that dogs are better than other species, like wolves, at interpreting our gestures and facial expressions.

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May 19 2019