Dr Sarah Ellis, Cat Behaviour specialist and Head of Cat Advocacy at iCatCare, investigates the MeowTalk App that has everybody talking and questions whether cats are included in the conversation
Relatively little is known about feline communication compared to other animals such as dogs. It was only last month that a research paper was published on the first experimental investigation of the slow blink, or ‘cat kiss’ communication technique, which found evidence that cats are more likely to approach us and blink and narrow their eyes if we slowly blink our eyes at them. This technique is already well known among cat owners, and the fact that it has only recently been scientifically investigated shows just how far we have to go until we have a solid, evidence-based understanding.
As people, verbal communication is very important to us, so it’s no surprise that we are keen to understand what our cats ‘say’ through their vocalisations. One company has taken this curiosity to a whole new level, leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning to create MeowTalk, the first app that claims to translate cat meows.
This caught my eye, as how good we are at understanding cat meow vocalisations was something I spent some of my research time at the University of Lincoln investigating, specifically how good we are at identifying the various contexts in which cats produce their meows in order to understand the function of each meow. It turns out it’s difficult for us to do this – we think we know our cats’ individual meows well, for example, when they want food, when they are stuck on the wrong side of the door and when they want our attention, but my research (and others) shows it’s not so simple.
Without the visual clues of seeing the cat in the context that caused the specific meow and the accompanying behaviour and body language, we perform only just better than random chance at identifying the correct context in which a meow vocalisation occurs!
Why is this? We love our cats, we listen to their meows on a daily basis, so why are we not that good at identifying them?
It appears there is huge variability in the features of meow vocalisations expressed between cats, even in the same context, for example, not all cats sound the same when asking for food. Even the same cat in the same context may sound different at different times. When we think about the fact that adult cats rarely meow to each other and that adult cat meowing generally appears to be directed towards us, we can start to understand the diversity a bit better. We inadvertently shape our cat’s meows, by reinforcing the behaviour. For example, if a cat meows for food and is ignored, it may meow louder and for longer and then the owner gets up and feeds it. That cat is then likely to have learnt to meow at great intensities to get food. Compare to the cat that has a sweet, short squeak-like meow when asking for food. An owner may find it endearing and answer immediately with a treat or two. Very quickly you can begin to see how we influence the meow produced and even how our influence may differ between cats living in the same household. Their meows may also be different when directed towards different people. A bit like us having a formal voice, a voice for family members and a voice for friends. Because of this shaping influence, the sound of the cat meow in a particular context with a particular function can actually evolve throughout a cat’s lifetime.
In my mind that makes machine learning complex. What concerns me most is that the company suggests if a translation is wrong, you just need to fix it through the app and select the correct translation. This relies on the person knowing the function of the meow in the first place and is that not the purpose of having the app?
The translations are very simplistic which may be an issue. For example, one translation the app is programmed for is the vocalisation of “I am in pain” – understanding when a cat is in pain is an incredibly important part of responsible ownership as it allows an owner to act and seek veterinary assistance. However, cats don’t tend to vocalise when in pain unless it is short lived, such as accidentally having their tail stepped on (which the person would know they had done). Chronic pain, which would be very important for owners to detect is rarely communicated via vocalisations by cats. They are very good at masking pain and it’s often difficult to identify, so this translation seems a little defunct.
Finally, simple translations carry no information about emotional intensity which is such an important part of language. There is a big difference between “I’m a little bit hungry” and “I’m absolutely starving as everyone has forgotten to feed me today” and such information is lost when using a translator.
So, while I love the idea of technology being used in a cat friendly way to help us understand these wonderful creatures we share our homes with, I’m struggling to see the benefits of an app that relies on the cat’s owner correcting its translations thus making the assumption we already understand what our cats are trying to tell us through their meows. If we knew this, would we need an app?!
If this has got you thinking about cat communication and you’d like to learn more, iCatCare experts, with contributions from leading behaviour experts Dr John Bradshaw and Vicky halls, have used years of experience and carefully selected research to build three exciting courses on feline behaviour.
Getting to know your cat: An introduction to feline behaviour is designed for cat owners and feline enthusiasts to give an introduction into the reasons cats behave in the way they do, and how we as owners can best provide for their behavioural needs. This is an online, distance-learning course that you can complete at your own pace.
Advanced Feline Behaviour for Cat Professionals (starting 03/03/2021) has been built for cat professionals who are currently working with cats in a range of capacities, such as:
- Animal behaviourists (as a top-up in feline behaviour )
- Rehoming centres (employed staff and volunteers affiliated with a rescue or rehoming charity)
- Boarding catteries and cat sitters
- Cat cafe workers
- Cat groomers
- Cat breeders
ISFM Advanced Feline Behaviour for Veterinary Professionals (starting 05/05/2021) is designed for veterinarians and veterinary nurses/technicians to provide knowledge and skills in many areas of feline behaviour to ensure you can:
- Reduce feline stress during visits to the veterinary clinic
- Incorporate behaviour into your welfare assessment of cats
- Effectively educate your clients on how best to meet their cats’ behavioural needs
- Understand how cats develop problem behaviours, how to prevent them and how to provide first aid behavioural advice when clients’ cats present them with problem behaviour