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Can an app really help you chat to your cat? AMANDA PLATELL (and her moggie) cat put it to the test

Can cats talk? Of course they can — and I speak as someone with extensive experience of felines. I consider myself something of a cat whisperer — a skill that that comes from 63 years of devoted cat companionship.

I like to think that Ted Platell, my rescue cat, and I understand each other. He knows I love and worship the ground his four paws gently pad on, and he has devised a language that lets me know exactly what he’s thinking and wants.

Pleasure, pain, annoyance — a cute little trill that tells me it’s time for his evening treat, and another more shrill one reserved for mention of visits to the ‘vee – ee – tee’. Yes I’d say we understand each other perfectly.

But what animal lover wouldn’t love to know what their pet is really thinking? Wouldn’t we love to hear them articulate their thoughts? To hear an ‘I love you so much, Mummy’ as they stare dreamily into your eyes, while receiving a blissful head rub and scratch behind the ears?

I like to think that Ted Platell, my rescue cat, and I understand each other. He knows I love and worship the ground his four paws gently pad on, and he has devised a language that lets me know exactly what he’s thinking and wants

Pleasure, pain, annoyance — a cute little trill that tells me it's time for his evening treat, and another more shrill one reserved for mention of visits to the 'vee - ee - tee'. Yes I'd say we understand each other perfectly. Pictured: Amanda with her cat Ted

Pleasure, pain, annoyance — a cute little trill that tells me it’s time for his evening treat, and another more shrill one reserved for mention of visits to the ‘vee – ee – tee’. Yes I’d say we understand each other perfectly. Pictured: Amanda with her cat Ted

Well, we’re one step closer. No, I can’t expect a Mr Ed-style ‘what time do you call this, woman, my bowl has been empty for hours,’ from Ted, as I creep in after a long day at the office, but I can, apparently, get a rough translation of some of his purrs, growls and mews.

It comes in the form of a new app called MeowTalk from the computer geek, engineer (and devoted cat lover) Javier Sanchez, the brains behind Amazon Alexa, that is attempting to interpret and translate cat speak into human language. All you have to do is record your cat’s meowings into your smartphone and the app interprets them into 13 different sentences.

They are: ‘I’m hungry,’ ‘I’m happy’, ‘I’m angry’, ‘Leave me alone’, ‘I’m in love’, ‘Feed me’, ‘Let me out’, ‘Let me in,’ ‘I’m going to attack’, ‘Hello there’, ‘I’m hunting,’ ‘I’m in pain’, and ‘I’m resting’.

I can, apparently, get a rough translation of some of his purrs, growls and mews. It comes in the form of a new app called MeowTalk from the computer geek, engineer (and devoted cat lover) Javier Sanchez

I can, apparently, get a rough translation of some of his purrs, growls and mews. It comes in the form of a new app called MeowTalk from the computer geek, engineer (and devoted cat lover) Javier Sanchez

Unlike their human servants, cats do not share a common language. Each animal’s meow is unique, so instead of a generic database for cat sounds, the app’s translation differs with each profile.

It is hoped that over time, as the makers of the app pool responses, the various interpretations will allow humans a broader understanding of the communication abilities of man’s second favourite companion.

Needless to say I was very excited to give it a go (with Ted’s full co-operation, naturally).

But my first skerrick of doubt? Thirteen sentences? That’s the vocabulary of a snail!

My Ted is way brighter than that, and I’m desperate to prove the sceptics (OK, dog lovers — animal affiliations tend to be divided along very strict cat/dog lines) wrong. For too long, dog owners have trumpeted their species’ superiority, their empathy, their unconditional affection, while cats have been dismissed as intellectually and emotionally inferior and aloof.

Which is, of course, piffle. I mean, if cats were so moronic, why would Cleopatra and the ancient Egyptians have chosen their felines to be buried alongside them for the afterlife? If nothing else, for a bit of good chat. They didn’t choose to spend eternity with a drooling Fido, now did they? Conscious of my late mother’s saying that ‘a house is not a home without a cat’, I’ve shared my life with a succession of felines, firstly in my native Australia and throughout the 35 years I’ve lived in London.

But my first skerrick of doubt? Thirteen sentences? That's the vocabulary of a snail! My Ted is way brighter than that, and I'm desperate to prove the sceptics (OK, dog lovers — animal affiliations tend to be divided along very strict cat/dog lines) wrong

But my first skerrick of doubt? Thirteen sentences? That’s the vocabulary of a snail! My Ted is way brighter than that, and I’m desperate to prove the sceptics (OK, dog lovers — animal affiliations tend to be divided along very strict cat/dog lines) wrong

I purchased two tiny ginger moggies from a filthy pet shop in Islington, North London, for a fiver, when I first moved here. Bruvvers they were and so were named Ronnie and Reggie, the Claw Brothers.

After they passed away, the castaway Jimmy entered my life. Then, after he ate his last prawn nine years ago, my mate Ted, a mangy white and ginger moggy kitten I rescued from Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, moved into my cottage.

A brief word at this point about Ted Platell: he has every right to be angry, and if he could, I’m sure he’d have an awful lot to say about his start in life, having been subjected to a South London gang initiation ceremony as a tiny kitten.

Holding him by his little paws, they immersed him in boiling water up to his armpits, then cut The Cross of St George into his tummy. Common practice in those parts, the Battersea staff told me at the time.

Somehow, he survived and a kindly (or complicit) young woman knocked on the rescue centre door late at night and flung a bleeding and burnt Ted through the doorway.

Neither his fur nor his bare tummy has ever quite recovered from that cruelty. And yet despite his traumatic beginning, Ted loves people.

He waits at the front door for ten minutes for his human friends to arrive, somehow anticipating their arrival with soft little meows. I am not making this up, ask my friend and colleague Andrew Pierce, who is a constant recipient of Ted’s love and trust.

After they passed away, the castaway Jimmy entered my life. Then, after he ate his last prawn nine years ago, my mate Ted, a mangy white and ginger moggy kitten I rescued from Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, moved into my cottage

After they passed away, the castaway Jimmy entered my life. Then, after he ate his last prawn nine years ago, my mate Ted, a mangy white and ginger moggy kitten I rescued from Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, moved into my cottage

A brief word at this point about Ted Platell: he has every right to be angry, and if he could, I'm sure he'd have an awful lot to say about his start in life, having been subjected to a South London gang initiation ceremony as a tiny kitten

A brief word at this point about Ted Platell: he has every right to be angry, and if he could, I’m sure he’d have an awful lot to say about his start in life, having been subjected to a South London gang initiation ceremony as a tiny kitten

He just knows, intuits somehow, that Andrew’s on the way, and he’s there, waiting for him at the door for us to share a socially distanced hello. Ted likes tinned tuna, spring water not sunflower oil, and prefers eating it from a wine glass not a plate, scooping out each delicious morsel with his paw. He lingers over it as one might a special Cabernet Sauvignon.

So could this new app capture such a fine mind, and shine a light into his complex thought processes? I download it to find out and, as instructed, place the mobile under said cat’s nose each time it ‘speaks’, to record the conversation.

At first, every meow is translated by MeowTalk as: ‘I am angry.’ I persevere, following Ted around the cottage, phone in hand.

I capture his little chirrups when his second favourite human, Andrew, arrives for a brief, distanced doorstep chat. Once more, MeowTalk says: ‘I am angry.’ Now I know that is not true or fair. Ted is also the least grumpy little guy in England, so when almost every meow is translated as ‘I am angry,’ I start to worry.

Could it be … shudder… that Ted secretly hates me? That he’s only in this relationship for the tuna, after all?

At first, every meow is translated by MeowTalk as: 'I am angry.' I persevere, following Ted around the cottage, phone in hand

At first, every meow is translated by MeowTalk as: ‘I am angry.’ I persevere, following Ted around the cottage, phone in hand

No, it occurs to me. Ted simply hates being followed around the house by me with a phone under his nose! At 5am, with Ted prancing on my bed, meowing softly, which I manage to capture without him noticing, I suddenly start to feel a little more relieved.

‘I love you,’ says the app, which is nice to hear, even at that unearthly hour, but what I really think he’s trying to say is: ‘I forgot to go before I went to bed and need a pee. I’m now in my mid-50s in human years, and my bladder isn’t what it was.’

When that plaintiff little meow at bedtime, which he uses to remind me of that special time of night, when he gets his favourite Dreamies treat, comes back as ‘I’m in pain,’ I realise what an impatient little chap he is and jump to the task immediately.

And maybe Ted’s displays of anger could be put down to simple exuberence: a loud cry as he rips my Spurs scarf to bits is interpretted by the app as anger, when I know he just wants to play. Cat playtime is just a dress rehearsal to actual killing, after all. I’m starting to think Mr Sanchez might be onto something … how long before Ted and I are enjoying real conversations?

Dr Sarah Ellis, Head of Cat Advocacy for International Cat Care, says I shouldn’t look too forensically at Ted’s emotions, as interpreted by science.

Neither his fur nor his bare tummy has ever quite recovered from that cruelty. And yet despite his traumatic beginning, Ted loves people. He waits at the front door for ten minutes for his human friends to arrive, somehow anticipating their arrival with soft little meows

Neither his fur nor his bare tummy has ever quite recovered from that cruelty. And yet despite his traumatic beginning, Ted loves people. He waits at the front door for ten minutes for his human friends to arrive, somehow anticipating their arrival with soft little meows

We are, and probably always will be, a long way from deciphering their minds: ‘Without the visual clues of seeing the cat in the context that causes the specific meow and the accompanying behaviour and body language, we perform only just above chance at identifying the correct context in which a meow vocalisation occurs. They simply don’t all sound the same.’

So, as any cat lover of long standing knows, they are as individual as people. And, she says, a cat’s meows can change as they get older and then there’s the added confusion that they ‘speak’ differently to different people.

Britain’s foremost cat behavioural expert and our bestselling feline author, Vicky Halls, agrees —although she can see the appeal of the app.

And while Vicky accepts many of us are guilty of anthropomorphism, attributing human thoughts and feelings to animals, ‘it tends to lead to a lot of misunderstanding — animals are not people!’

‘Although the concept of owners projecting their own anxieties and personalities on their cats is not something that has been researched specifically, from my own experience I would say that it is not uncommon for people to make the assumption that their cats have similar thoughts and feelings to their own.’

Regarding the concept of MeowTalk, she says: ‘Understanding cats isn’t really about trying to translate the sounds they make into our own language.

‘We need to work harder to learn how to understand the multiple ways that cats communicate their needs and emotions. We desperately want to discover some kind of link between cats and humans, some way of understanding them and them understanding us.’

While MeowTalk sounds great fun — and it is — Vicky believes we should perhaps spend a little more time learning the intricacies of cat language rather than trying to turn it into human speak.

Moggies like Ted refuse to be adorned and would not countenance what he would consider to be a naff necklace

Moggies like Ted refuse to be adorned and would not countenance what he would consider to be a naff necklace

‘To try to interpret their intelligence from a human perspective rather misses the point. No cat can be reduced to an app.’

To his credit, Sanchez says his new invention is a work in progress and even at this crude stage it is enormously entertaining, especially as you can override its interpretation and add any translation you like from the chosen 13.

Meanwhile, he is using the information gathered by people using his app, recording and labeling cat sounds, to develop more sophisticated software to better understand and interpret each individual cat’s voice and extend their human vocabulary.

His ultimate goal is to develop a cat collar with a soundbox attached which translates the wearer’s meows into human speak.

Which sounds pretty creepy, not to say impractical. Moggies like Ted refuse to be adorned and would not countenance what he would consider to be a naff necklace. He’d have a collar off in five minutes, as quickly as he smashed off the cones of shame the vets attempted to get him to wear to stop scratching his bare belly.

Ted prancing around in a human voice-transmitting cat collar?

Now that really would make him angry.


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