How amazing would it be if talking with cats was as easy as talking with other humans? Any cat owner will tell you how much they wish their cats could talk.
The desire to better communicate with our cats is at the heart of every inquiry I get at Cat School.
"Why is my cat biting us?"
"Why is my cat screaming all the time?"
"I can't figure out what my cat wants! I want to understand what they need!"
Despite our love for our pets and the strong desire to meet their needs, we still don't have the technology to translate an animal's thoughts (or meows!) into our spoken word. Or do we?
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Can cats talk?
Though cats don't have the ability to use spoken human words, they do communicate with us in a variety of other ways - both vocally and physically. They use their voice to meow, purr, chirp, hiss, and yowl. They paw at us, jump in our laps, walk across our keyboards, arch their backs, swish their tails, swat their paws, bite, and scratch. Chances are, you know what your cat wants or how they're feeling based on any of these actions.
You communicate with your cat on a regular basis too with both your body language and your words. The truth is, even though we don't speak the same language, we spend a lot of time talking with our cats on a regular basis.
You might be thinking, "What about the cat talking buttons?" You've probably seen the videos online of pet owners and their dogs and cats using the talking buttons to express themselves using human words. Maybe they blew your mind and you were left wondering, "Is it real? Is talking with cats finally possible? Are talking animals becoming a thing?!"
What are talking buttons for cats?
Cat talk buttons are small buttons that can be programmed with your voice to say a specific word when pressed. You can program the buttons to say a variety of things, and they can be combined to create an entire soundboard. Theoretically, your cat can press the buttons to communicate what they want or how they're feeling.
Speech-language pathologist Christina Hunger introduced the soundboard by demonstrating her training with her talking dog Stella. You can teach a pet to indicate their desire by selecting the button that says the word out loud, such as having a button that says "food" or "outside." Christina and Stella even added more advanced concepts like "want" and emotions like "mad."
Understandably people are excited about this tool because, deep down, we all want to have the best communication with our pets that we possibly can to help meet their needs and give them fulfilled lives.
Are cat talking buttons legit?
While there is no denying the fact that you can teach your cat to press a button with a concrete meaning ("treat" or "play," for example), the jury is still out on whether you can teach them more vague concepts such as emotions.
The biggest issue with the soundboard is when we teach pets broad, complicated concepts (especially emotions), you cannot guarantee your pet's comprehension. Although studies are in the works, to date, there is no scientific evidence that dogs (or cats) understand soundboards. Until research proves that button pressing isn't random, we must be careful what claims we make about our pet's intentional communication and intelligence.
But that doesn't mean you can't get started on your button training. The key is to teach your cat to hit buttons with words, guaranteeing specific outcomes – something we've already done previously, for example, when we train a cat to ring a bell for a treat.
How To Teach a Cat to Talk with Buttons
Once you have your cat talking buttons, it's time to start training! To make sure you get started on the right foot, I recommend focusing on three simple skills (three buttons):
Treat = When your cat presses this button, you hand them a treat.
Outside = When your cat presses this button, put your cat's harness and leash and go outside.
Play = playing with a toy.
If you don't take your cat outside, you can substitute "outside" with a different word such as "toy," "catnip," or something else your cat likes.
Button 1: Treats Please
This skill is covered in Cat School by teaching a cat to ring a bell and get a treat after. If you taught your cat to ring a bell, you've got this. You can use your sticky note method and transfer it onto the treat button, and you should be good to go. Click and reward your cat with a treat whenever they press. Congratulations, your cat can now let you know it's treat time! You may have just created a monster...
Button 2: Outside
Have you ever seen a dog ring a bell to go outside? Well, cats can learn this skill too, and we can use a button to teach this. Just as you taught your cat to press the treat button, you can teach them to press the outside button.
It's helpful to place the button close to the outcome (going outside), so your cat can associate the button with the immediate action of going for a walk. Each time you take your cat outside, press the button for them so they begin to associate going outside with the button press. When your cat eventually starts pushing the button themselves, be sure to always start the process of leashing up to go for a walk.
Button 3: Play
Place the button close to an area where you can quickly get a toy. When they push the button, bring out the toy within 2 - 3 seconds and play for a short period.
With all three skills, repetition is vital. Practice with your cat pushing the buttons over multiple sessions so your cat associates the cue with the consequence after it. We want to make sure they can distinguish each button with the appropriate result.
If your cat pushes the button and nothing happens, that's not going to bode well for your training. Like clicker training, a button is a contract with your cat that, when pressed, the result is guaranteed. If we keep it simple, it will be easier to observe your cat's responses to see if they understand to use the speech buttons to communicate their desires.
Once your cat actively uses their buttons, you may want to consider bringing the buttons closer together to make it easier to exercise their choice. However, be careful of causing any confusion, as the meaning of the buttons may become harder to distinguish when the buttons are side-by-side.
Some ways of overcoming this challenge are making the speech buttons more distinct looking. You can put them on different objects or have shapes on top of the buttons as more apparent signals.
Think about how your cat already has physical items that predict events. For example, when you bring out your cat's harness, they know that means walk time. Resting a button on your cat's equipment might help them understand its meaning. Always remember to adjust your training to set your cat up for success.
After your cat masters the first three buttons, you can try additional buttons, but be careful not to make things too complicated. For the best chance at success, keep things simple.
Final Thoughts on Using Cat Talk Buttons
Button use is still in its early stages – it's a bit of a wild west right now, and both the teaching methodology and testing of an animal's comprehension of buttons remain to be clearly defined. Although they may look entertaining on social media posts, emotions like "mad" and "love" are anthropomorphic – meaning, giving human attributes to animals.
Putting a value on these words takes away from our cat's already rich communicative abilities. For example, your cat's tail position can tell you A LOT more about their feelings than trying to teach them words that represent emotions.
If your goal is to improve your communication with your cat, take a thoughtful approach to the training and keep it simple with just a few buttons that provide clear and instant consequences.
Whether you decide to use the talking buttons with your cat or not, understand there are other ways you can communicate with your cat. Talking with cats happens all the time, whether you realize it or not.