No, you probably don't understand your cat's meow.

After a certain amount of time, most pet owners develop a seemingly profound connection with their companion. For many, this connection appears to be communicative, and some even claim to understand what the animal is "saying" when it barks, neighs, or meows. But is this really possible?

Unfortunately, the answer appears to be no — at least when it comes to cats. Although animal owners can appear to be eerily attuned to the emotional life of their four-footed friends, both scientific and philosophical issues problematize the existence of pet whisperers.

The Science of Your Cat's Meow

In a study published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology, researchers from the Cornell University Department of Psychology found little evidence that even the most committed cat owners could understand their friends' meows. In two experiments, participants were asked to assess and classify pre-recorded, individual meows taken from 12 cats in five behavioral contexts. Their accuracy, though exceeding that of mere chance, was modest, and the researchers determined that the meows were most likely uttered to simply attract attention rather than to actually communicate something substantive.

"These results provide little evidence of referentiality suggesting instead that meows are nonspecific, somewhat negatively toned stimuli that attract attention from humans. With experience, human listeners can become more proficient at inferring positive-affect states from cat meows," the researchers wrote, suggesting that the non-specificity of meows makes them incompatible with human, specific modes of interaction. We may respond, but we cannot claim to understand.

The Philosophy of Your Cat's Meow

The difference between responding and understanding has been explored in a philosophical capacity by a number of thinkers, notably the Austrian logician and language philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein — one of the most formidable intellectual figures of the 20th Century. Wittgenstein famously held that even if a lion could speak, we wouldn't understand a word. Why? The short explanation is that lions, being so far removed from the human everyday situation, would converse and express themselves in manner utterly foreign to us — even if they could speak English, they would make zero sense.

Bottom line, you may think you understand your cat's meow — but remember that understanding is not the same thing as responding and caring. Instead, your connection is grounded in a nonspecific, emotional mode of communication. Perhaps it's best kept that way.

Source: "Classification of domestic cat (Felis catus) vocalizations by naive and experienced human listeners." Nicastro, Nicholas; Owren, Michael J.Journal of Comparative Psychology, Vol 117(1), Mar 2003, 44-52. doi: 10.1037/0735-7036.117.1.44