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Talking to Animals

Many people talk to their pets.  There is nothing wrong with this.  There is also nothing wrong with talking to yourself.  

But do they Understand?

But when we talk to animals, how much do they understand?  One day I saw a cat with a snake in its mouth.  I told the cat to drop it, and the cat did drop the snake.  However, I doubt if the cat understood any of my words.  I had spoken to him more sharply than I ever done before.  I think the tone of my voice had frightened him.

Animal Names

Both our dogs and some, but not all, of our cats will respond to their names.  We say that they know their own names.  This seems to presuppose that they are self aware in the same way as a human or an ape is.  I am very uncertain about whether Dogs and Cats are aware of themselves in this way.  They certainly react to their name as if they know that it refers to them, but this is not proof of self awareness.


Some dogs and a few other animals can learn the name of objects.  So, a trained dog might fetch a newspaper on command, or fetch a different object in response to another sentence changed only by the name of the object.  So in this case there is some understanding of our speech.


We used to be taught that talking birds are not using language for communication, but are just imitating sounds.  There is no doubt that there is a strong element of this with talking birds, but careful observation seems to suggest that a few of these birds are using specific words or phases in response to specific situations, and can learn to associate the words and the situation.

We were given a Sulphur Crested Cockatoo.  She had been in the same fairly small cage for several years and it was quite a while before we could persuade her to come out so we could put her into a larger cage.  If we opened the little door of the cage she would say “shut the door.”   As well as this, if the door of the room was open she would also say “shut the door.”   It was as if she had recognised the similarity of the door of her cage and the door of the room.


Apes kept in close contact with humans seem to be able to understand our speech.  One Bonobo could apparently understand 3000 words of spoken English and could use 800 words in sign language.  Basic English contains only 850 words, so this ape’s vocabulary was well within what is needed to hold sensible conversations.  His understanding of English syntax was apparently inferior to that of a human child with the same vocabulary.

Talking to Fish

Although the 43rd president of the United States said (before he was elected); the human being and fish can coexist peacefully”, and I totally agree with him, this does not mean that our pet fish can understand our words.  I doubt if they can.

Walking the Walk
President George W. Bush signs a proclamation to create the
This may help protect some of Hawaii's fish