December 4, 2023

Despite having been with us for more than 12,000 years, cats remain a mystery to man, perhaps due to their particular nature. A human who lives with a cat is no longer an ordinary human, but one who is enchanted by the animal and its few displays of affection, its indolence, its intelligence, its stubbornness and, of course, its beauty. This spell may have to do with the antagonism of the two animals living together: the human and the cat. “While cats live by following their nature, humans live by suppressing theirs,” writes philosopher and theorist John Gray in his essay feline philosophy. Often, those who live with these animals wonder what they would say if they could express themselves in our language. They may even question whether they could say “I love you”. Interestingly, the 21st century has come up with some answers to this question: a company that creates boards with buttons that express words, the pandemic and TikTok have introduced an army of talking cats to the world. To the surprise of no one and the charm of all those humans bewitched by their cats, there is a cat whose favorite phrase is “I’m pissed off.”

Steve is a 13-year-old black and white cat with more than 28,000 followers on Instagram. On TikTok it’s quite a sensation: the account in which Kristiina Wilson, her owner and expert in animal behaviour, training and psychology, uploads her adventures, accumulates more than 238,000 followers and has more than nine million likes. I like. The internet’s obsession with cats doesn’t surprise anyone, but what has millions of people peeking out on a day-to-day Steve the thing is Steve speaks. Or rather, he communicates via a panel with buttons that tell Wilson what his immediate needs are. Steve He was one of the pioneers in the use of this type of board and continues to generate interest and curiosity around his learning.

Steve he presses ‘exit out’ and Kristiina lets him out. Steve he presses ‘thirst’ and Kristiina gives him water. Steve press ‘food’ and Kristiina feeds him. But there is more: in one of the videos, Kristiina says that she and her wife have gone out of town for the weekend, so the cat suddenly meets the caretaker who comes by to feed him and the rest of the cats. house cats (there are a total of 11, some of their own and others foster until they find a home) and check that all are well. Steve press the button that says ‘no’. She walks around the caretaker and demands her attention, soon pressing a button that says ‘ma’am’. “Yeah, that’s me,” she replies. ‘Steve’, she presses Steve‘Ma’am’, press Steve‘Cuddles’. Steve need cuddles The caretaker takes him in her arms.

“He has always been a very communicative and intelligent cat: for example, if he wanted to go out into the patio, he would go to the patio door and meow. If we didn’t have the key, he would open the door himself. If he wanted to play, he would bring you his toys, like a dog. If he wanted to eat, he meowed in the kitchen, ”Wilson, who adopted a child, told EL PAÍS. Steve when I was still a baby in an animal shelter. Steve I was already working on training by association, which is the basis of sound button boards: kitchen equals food, door equals exit. “During the pandemic, spending so much time at home, I started seeing all those cats with boards on TikTok and thought I could teach him a trick or two.” She is a very fast learner, she currently has nine buttons that she uses to communicate with Kristiina such as food, play, go outside, yes, no, ma’am or pampering. She acknowledges that she has made life easier for her: now, her communication with her cat is much more direct.

Leo Trottier is the founder and CEO of FluentPet, which creates these button boards that have become trending on social media like TikTok. The company was born in 2013, previously it was called CleverPet and the embryonic idea was a game for animals that spent a lot of time at home alone. Later, it was transformed into something that simultaneously served as animal training and allowed humans to better learn and understand their pets. While the project was in the development phase, Trottier learned about the work of Christina Hunger, a specialist in speech and language pathologies, who, after adopting a dog named Stella, found that it displayed some of the pre-linguistic communication skills that babies have before they start talking. Hunger decided to try Stella an Augmentative and Alternative Communication device, a system used to express thoughts, needs, desires and ideas for people with severe speech or language problems. It worked. “The system is very simple,” explains Trottier by video call, “you have a button associated with a word and that word leads to an action.”

A woman teaching her cat to speak with one of FluentPet's tablets.
A woman teaching her cat to speak with one of FluentPet’s tablets.@victoriadimaano (Courtesy of FluentPet)

The only rule to teach a cat or a dog to communicate through an Augmentative and Alternative Communication system is simple: don’t start with the food button. “You have to look for something that is very motivating for them, in the case of Steve it was to go outside, but that is not related to food… because then he will only be interested in food and he has to learn that each button has a different reaction on our part”, points out Kristiina Wilson.

“People really want to understand their dogs and their cats,” explains Trottier. In the spring of 2020, FluentPet began shipping prototypes of their product, and by June they had already launched the product. The pandemic and the time at home favored the business. “Many people tell us: ‘Why do I need those buttons, if I already understand my pet?’ We see it as an advance in this communication: the buttons allow you to have an instant recognition of their needs and give you the ability to be very specific with those needs”, Trottier details.

Behind the boom during confinement, social networks did the rest. The most viral videos were of those animals that seemed to express complex feelings: Billy, the cat that clicked ‘I’m pissed off’ is quite a celebrity on the internet, others constantly click ‘I love you’, some even express sadness or fear. Which shows that, deep down, human beings do not simply seek to have a simpler communication with animals, but a deeper communication.

In that sense, it is possible that this communication system can disappoint more than one. Beyond the fact that they learn responses through conditioning, at the moment it seems unlikely that they are expressing more complex feelings: “We are still taking baby steps”, explains Trottier, “we have found curious cases, dogs, especially, could communicate to warn of a danger outside the house if they see a strange presence or indicate to the owner that they are feeling pain in a paw”.

“I am completely sure that animals have feelings and are capable of recognizing them”, says Kristiina Wilson, “however, from my scientific background, I would tell you that this is learning by association, an action like the button leads to a reaction like opening them the door. So all these animals that seem to be expressing their feelings, with words like ‘I love you’ or ‘I’m pissed off’, what they’re really doing is demanding our attention. With an ‘I love you’ they receive the attention they seek, which in their case may be that you look at them, listen to them, go where they are or pick them up, but I doubt that they are really saying ‘I love you’, even though they love you ”. In the end, feline love has a lot to do with being unconditional: it is wanting without expecting an ‘I love you’ in return. And perhaps receiving it could break the spell.

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