New in Animal Speech Science; Would you want your pet to talk back to you? — Eva Marder

Updated: Mar 9, 2021

You may babble to your pet like a baby or subject them to rants about life's struggles, but with recent communication technology, now they may be able to respond. A feline-translating app that made headlines in 2020 has revived the age-old question: does your pet really know what you are saying? Rather than associate an action with a reward, are animals able to engage in conversation?

First, we must dissect the ingredients of a conversation; talking is a series of calls and responses in its simplest form. Much like a conversation, dogs can easily connect a command with a response such as food or praise. An example that seems to flip this idea upside down is one canine who can do math; Maggie is a special Jack Russell terrier who can add, subtract, multiply, and divide. She communicates her answer to a given math problem with the number of taps of her paw. Maggie has demonstrated her skills on the Oprah Show and BBC, but has she grasped the concept of mathematics (OWN)? According to VCA Hospitals, not only can dogs learn the meaning of words, but they can also comprehend how we say them (Buzhardt, VCA). For example, envision the tone and body language a person attaches to the phrase, "good boy," versus "bad boy." Dogs are naturally inclined to listen to their owners, which is why many suspect that Maggie's keeper is just giving her physical cues to come to the right answer. While this mental capability may not exist in every species, it serves as a building block for animals to grasp a series of words, better known as communication.

Sometimes, animals need a little help to speak their mind. Cat owners have recently resorted to a simple tool to do so: buttons. Instead of attaching meaning to toys or food, owners have placed buttons labeled with single words on the floor for their cat to press in response to questions/commands. After the cat grasps the meaning behind one or two buttons, it can slowly but surely form the call and response pattern that mimics a conversation. For example, one cat owned by animal behaviorist Kristiina Wilson learned to communicate its needs by pressing the "outside" button on the ground far too often (Barcella, People). The new app MeowTalk, from the minds of Amazon's Alexa developers, takes this interspecies communication one step further. According to BBC, the app attempts to identify the meaning behind your cat's meow by labeling its unique sounds. Although MeowTalk's legitimacy is controversial, the app elucidates the idea that, unlike humans, cats do not share a language. MeowTalk also gives users the option to approve or alter the translation of their cat's meow (Criddle, BBC). While felines may not speak as willingly as parrots or dogs, consider the translation of your cat's sounds the next time you unleash a seemingly one-sided conversation.

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