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. Either way, getting your cat to press a button is a fun clicker training assignment. 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.
What kind of talking buttons are best for cats?
The biggest roadblock I've found people encounter when button training is that the buttons are difficult for their cats to press. There are a few different types out there, but most require more force to press than the average cat is able to put out.
I decided to test out the FluentPet buttons because they are smaller and sized appropriately for cat paws. They also have a starter kit that includes two buttons.
(I am not affiliate with FluentPet in any way.)
How To Teach a Cat to Talk with Buttons
Once you have your cat talking buttons, it's time to start training! Though some training will recommend not to start with a treat button, in my opinion, a treat button is a great way to get started. If the goal is to get cats to seek out and get excited to press buttons, what better way is there to do that if you don’t use treats?
(If your cat isn’t food motivated, read this post about how to increase your cat's food motivation.)
Button Training Prerequesites
Besides your cat understanding that "click" means they get a treat, there are few other skills you can train your cat first that will help to make your button training easier.
Ping Pong Kitty
For this skill, you toss a treat away from you and hope your cat will automatically come back. If they do, it shows they are a willing training partner and are willing to work for the reward you're giving.
This skill is also important because we want cats walking towards the buttons, not sitting and pressing a button. if your cat is sitting, it will be harder to put enough pressure on the button to get it to speak.
(Tutorial included in video below.)
Two Paws On
This skill requires your cat to put two paw on an object. I call this "perch" or "two paws on and off." Start with a large object like a yoga block or cork trivets and your finger target or target stick to draw your cat forward.
You can start with a food lure for this skill to begin with, but the goal is for your cat to understand to put two paws on the prop on their own. For button training, your will need to notice and know to interact with the button on their own, not be looking at you or your hands.
(Tutorial included in video below.)
Cat Talking Button Training Step 1: Ping Pong Kitty + Two Paws On
Using your platform, toss a treat a way and click your cat for returning to the platform. Feed one treat on the platform and toss another one away. Keep your hands still so your cat is seeking out the prop on their own.
Repeat this a bunch of times.
Cat Talking Button Training Step 2: Make the platform smaller.
Spend a lot of time during this step teaching your cat to step on different objects, gradually using smaller and smaller objects. I went from cork trivets to cork coasters to silicone can lids. Then I use one of my favorite props - stacking cups, since they progressively get smaller.
Cat Talking Button Training Step 3: Reinforce one paw on the cup.
At this stage, the platform will be too small for both paws. That's okay - you can start rewarding when your cat puts only one paw on the prop.
Pro tip: Be sure to reward your cat up high so they are reaching up with their heads for their treat. This is an important step because it is what teaches your cat to put enough pressure on the platform, which will then translate to putting enough pressure to activate the button.
Cat Talking Button Training Step 4: Put the button on the cup.
Once your cat is good putting one paw on the small cup (or whatever your prop of choice is), place the button on top of it. This is a great way to start introducing the button.
Cat Talking Button Training Step 5: Isolate the button.
Now it's time to get rid of the cups and lower the button closer to the floor. If your prop held the button higher off the ground like the cups I use, I recommend experimenting with other props to gradually start lowering the button closer and closer to the ground, until the button is directly on its base.
Cat Talking Button Training Step 6: Put the button away.
When you're finished with your training, put the button away. Unless, of course, you want your cat to always be able to ask for a treat.
What if my cat sits and doesn't press the button hard enough?
Use your hand as a signal to encourage your cat to move forward. This is how you can communicate to your cat that putting their paw on the button isn't enough - they have to move forward a bit to activate the button.
Teach Your Cat To Press A Talking Button - Video Tutorial
Other Button Recommendations
If you want to experiment with other buttons besides a "treat" button, you could try making one for "outside" and "play" - really word that has a concrete meaning that guarantees a specific outcome. 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.
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. When your cat pushes the button, be sure to always start the process of leashing up to go for a walk.
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 these 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.
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.