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How cats and dogs relate to humans

Each day, our pets provide us with companionship and unconditional love. But how well do they understand our attempts to communicate with them, and how do they process this information?

How Dogs Relate to Humans

Language. We all know that dogs can be trained to follow commands, and that they often can intuit when we are happy, angry, or scared. The average dog can understand up to 135 human words or phrases.

To learn more about the way dogs process human communication, a 2016 study from Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary examined the neural responses of dogs to human speech. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), investigators discovered that dogs processed the words and the speaker’s tone in different areas of their brains. Words were processed in the brain’s left hemisphere, whereas intonation was processed in the right hemisphere. The study animals knew they were being praised even if they didn’t recognize the words being said, and they recognized familiar words regardless of tone, but the reward centers of their brains responded most intensely when familiar words were spoken affectionately.

The results show us that dog and human brains process communication in similar ways—language is processed in the left-brain and emotions in the right. Interestingly, the study also noted that these similarities are not a result of the centuries of domestication, but rather that the ancient neural mechanics of dog brains make them well suited for human companionship.

Editor’s Note: Can talking baby talk to your dog improve your bond? Studies show it can.

Nonverbal Communication. Dogs also respond to our nonverbal, emotional cues. They will often seek to comfort us when we are sick or unhappy and will often respond with concern if they believe we are in trouble. Because dogs rely on unspoken communication, they are able to pick up cues from not only our tone, but from body language and general attitude. Ever notice how your dog responds to a baby’s cry or becomes excited when you begin packing for a family vacation? These are examples of ways that dogs process nonverbal cues.

Similarly, dogs use behavioral cues to show us when they are happy, scared, or feeling threatened. Ears and tail up usually indicates a relaxed and open posture, while tail tucked and ears back can connote fear or submission. Playful dogs will often slap the ground with their front paws to engage a partner in play, while a dog that feels threatened will likely snarl, growl, and adopt a fight-or-flight posture.

Special Skills. Some dogs are even able to detect subtle physiological changes in humans—changes that we ourselves may not notice. Seizure-detecting dogs, for example, can detect when their caregiver is about to experience a seizure. Science believes they are able to do this by detecting subtle changes in body or breath odor that signal seizure onset.

How Cats Relate to Humans

Language. Cats rarely vocalize when communicating with each other (exceptions include fighting and mating). When our cats relate to us, however, they tend to be more conversational, asking for food, affection, or some backyard time. Unlike dogs, cats can only understand between 25 and 35 distinct human phrases or commands, so they tend to rely more on nonverbal cues. However, as most cat owners can tell you, they do know their names and can respond to simple commands (“off the table” is a fave around our house).

Cats also use different vocalizations when communicating with us. For example, a request for affection will likely sound different from a request for a treat. Some cat breeds are more talkative than others. The Siamese and Burmese, for example, are known for their robust vocalizations, while other breeds like the Scottish Fold tend to “chirp” rather than meow when they vocalize.

Nonverbal Communication. Cats are natural hunters and roamers what rely on their senses to understand their immediate environment. When domesticated, cats still use these ancient tools to analyze their surroundings, but they are also aware of nonverbal cues from us. Cats have been known to comfort the sick, to curl up with a crying child, or to stay close when they believe one of their caregivers is sad or injured.

Cats also have a pretty effective system of sending us nonverbal messages—though they can often change moods unpredictably. Generally, ears up and tail up signal a happy, confident cat, whereas ears down and arched back signal aggression. Play stance resembles hunting behavior, especially when a cat is gearing up to pounce, and hissing is an involuntary fear response cats employ both with both humans and each other.

Some nonverbal cues used in the cat world make their way into cat—human communication. The head bump, for example, is a friendly greeting, but it is also a way for cats to mark members of their pride or colony with their scent. So, a head bump from a cat is both a way of saying hello, as well as a way of identifying you as a member of the cat’s community.


Cecily Kellogg is a pet lover who definitely has crazy cat lady leanings. Her pets are all shelter rescues, including the dog, who is scared of the cats. She spent eight years working as a Veterinary Technician before becoming a writer. Today she writes all over the web, including here at Figo.

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