How would you like to know that the strident meow your cat is directing toward you means “Clean my litter box” or that the woof your dog is making means “Sweet potatoes again. Bummer”? Finding out what our pets are “saying” may not be too far in the future, according to Dr. Con Slobodchikoff.
The Northern Arizona University professor emeritus has been doing research on prairie dog communication and has learned that the little creatures have a sophisticated animal language, and he has decoded some of it. According to an interview by The Atlantic‘s Megan Garber, Dr. Slobodchikoff’s research shows that prairie dogs have word-like phonemes and combine them into sentence-like calls. “They have social chatter. They can distinguish between types of predators that are nearby — dogs, coyotes, humans — and seem to have developed warnings that specify the predators’ species and size and color,” she writes.
What does this mean for pet people? Dr. Slobodchikoff anticipates that we can do this same sort of analysis of other animals’ communication. He mentions that knowing what pets are “saying” to us could help keep pets from being euthanized for behavior problems.
“Most problems are because of the lack of communication between animal and human,” he says. “The human can’t get across to the animal what the human expects, and the animal can’t get across to the human what it’s experiencing. And if we had a chance to talk back and forth, the dog could say, ‘You’re scaring me.’ And you could say, ‘Well, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that I was scaring you. I’ll give you more space.’”
Slobodchikoff says the technology to analyze sounds is available, but that using it to communicate with other species is probably five to 10 years away and lots of research will need to be done to interpret any given species’ “language.”
In a study by Nick Nicastri, a grad student at Cornell University, people were asked if they could interpret unfamiliar cats’ meows. “Listeners were surprisingly poor at this, ” according to an article by Pamela Reid on Petfinder. “Even the person with the most cat-experience only managed to correctly classify 41% of the meows (in contrast, people can differentiate human vocal sounds with an accuracy of about 90%).” Clearly we do need assistance from research and technology.
“What I’m hoping, actually, is that down the road, we will be forming partnerships with animals, rather than exploiting animals,” Dr. Slobodchikoff says.
That’s a laudable hope. As pet parents, we learn to interpret our pet’s body signals and even vocalizations to some extent. But what an exciting thought that we might, in the future, really be able to communicate more accurately with them in their own language, thanks to technology. Unfortunately, sometimes our hopes are not realized because of humans’ apparent insatiable desire to exploit.