My Pets’ Language Skills: A Speech-Language Pathologist’s Observation

by Megan Taylor Stephens

Jan. 7, 2022

Apparently, I have too much time on my hands, because I have been pondering my dog and cat’s ability to communicate. The following are my perhaps not-so-earth-shattering observations.

My cat has better expressive language. He has a certain meow to say “I’m hungry” and another one to say “It’s freezing, let me in.” He purrs when he’s content. Or he may just be self-soothing, because he often purrs just to purr. He swipes at me or bites me to say, “Don’t touch me there, Lady!” He has limited nonverbal communication. He does, however, stand next to the door and stare at it creepily to ask to be let out. He also rubs against me persistently with his tail up as if to say, “Feed me! I’m dying! And why haven’t you fed me in eons?!”

My dog has better social pragmatic and receptive language. She understands lots of commands and responds well to my tone of voice. She knows when my prosody and pitch indicate that she’s been a good girl or a naughty rascal. She understands and uses a wide array of nonverbal language, such as my gestures for “Shake, Roll over, Go away.” She makes consistent bids for interaction, such as bringing me a squeaky toy to throw. She has excellent reciprocity. After I give her scratches, she gives me licks. After I do a wrestling move on her, she does one on me. She rarely speaks except to say, “Let’s play!” or “State your name and purpose, Stranger.”

I should say that neither my cat nor my dog has superb pragmatic skills. One is quite self-centered and doesn’t really seem to give a rat’s rump about anyone but himself. The other doesn’t take hints that not all humans are dog people and they don’t unanimously appreciate slobbery licks. It could be worthwhile for me to do a developmental history interview to see what their birth parents have to say, if there’s any pattern of delays in littermates, and what their early childhood was like before I became their mom.

Who says the pandemic is totally nonproductive? This speech-language pathologist with too much down time has managed to do a quick language observation on her subjects. Now I will undertake some response-to-intervention before determining whether or not to move to a formal evaluation. I’m thinking of trialing some AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) devices such as those programmable buttons to help my pets communicate. Then again, that would require way more free time than even I have. The pandemic had better wrap up before I stumble upon other inconsequential distractions!

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