A creative foster is helping cats get adopted by teaching them to “talk”—with the help of recordable buttons.
Atlanta resident Monesia Greene, 24, loves giving back by volunteering, whether helping out at homeless shelters, preparing bone marrow testing kits, or fostering cats waiting for their forever homes.
When she started volunteering with the Atlanta chapter of nonprofit Best Friends Animal Society last year, she took in two foster cats: Spring and Ripley.
Spring was adopted just a week later, but Ripley was overlooked for nearly six months. Greene began to question why the Tabby, who had come out of her shell in a home environment, couldn’t find a forever home. She even wondered, “Am I doing something wrong?”
“She’s so cute. She loves to play,” she told the Rover blog. “I’m like, ‘What can I do for these cats to help them get adopted?’”
Here Kitty, Kitty
The answer came from an unlikely source: TikTok. The social media platform is brimming with “talking” dogs (like Bunny, who has over 7 million followers) and even cats who press pre-recorded buttons to communicate with their owners.
For several years, speech pathologist Christina Hunger, who is considered to be the founder of the talking animal movement, has been teaching her mixed-breed dog, Stella, to use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices like the ones she uses with children with speech or language impairments.
Stella knows over 45 words and can string together phrases like, “Bed all done. Come outside.”
She shared Stella’s progress on her “Hunger for Words” blog and social media pages—and in her 2021 bestseller “How Stella Learned to Talk: The Groundbreaking Story of the World’s First Talking Dog.” Animals lovers around the world started teaching their pets to “speak,” too.
So, when Greene saw videos of “talking dogs” and cats on TikTok, she immediately ordered recordable buttons to use with Ripley and watched a YouTube video of a man teaching his cat to “talk.”
She started by recording words for two of Ripley’s favorite things: “treat” and “pets.” While Ripley loves being petted and receiving affection, the food-motivated cat’s favorite button to press proved to be “treat.” Next, she added “play” and “pick up” because the cat loves playing with a wand toy and being picked up for cuddles.
Greene took videos of Ripley in action and soon she was adopted “because of the buttons.”
“I heard that she’s thriving in her forever home, so that’s great,” she said. “She deserves it.”
Cats Who Push Buttons
The next foster was Momma Cat, who loves snuggling and being brushed. Greene used the same technique she used to teach Ripley to use the buttons. The idea is to start by associating a word with an activity, such as saying “pick up” when picking up the cat or “play” while playing. Then start pressing the button to the corresponding word to create that association.
“I’ll direct the toy over the button to have their eye on it and I’ll press it so they know, ‘We’re playing. This is the button to play. When you want to play, this is what you press.’ So they can really just connect all the dots,” she said. “They’re so smart, and they know what they want. You just have to give them the opportunity.”
Greene has four buttons in her home; Momma’s four words were “treats,” “pets,” “brush” and “pick up.” (Momma was a bigger fan of being brushed than of play, so Greene changed the words to suit her preferences.)
The clever cat started pressing buttons about 15 minutes into training. Eventually when she wanted something that wasn’t an option—like more cat litter in her box—she would circle the buttons and sit down, or walk away like she wanted to lead Greene somewhere.
Sure enough, by paying attention to the cat’s body language, Greene would discover that the litter box did in fact need to be filled, or that Momma Cat was particularly craving dry food.
Walking the Talk
After three months, Momma Cat was adopted by a couple so enthralled by her use of the buttons—she requested “brush” during the virtual adoption visit—that they purchased their own so that she can keep communicating with them.
“I loved every bit of it because this is exactly what I wanted,” Greene said. “It doesn’t matter if she’s shy or takes a while to warm up. They know she’s so smart and she can do something that not a lot of cats can do.”
Now she’s teaching her current foster, Autumn, to use the buttons. She always starts with two buttons instead of one so the cat has a choice—and picks the top two things the cat enjoys, one of which usually involves food.
“When cats realize that you can understand them, they become even closer to you,” she said. “So that’s my secret of fostering.”
A Model Foster
Julie Castle, CEO of Best Friends Animal Society, is delighted by Greene’s creative approach.
“Monesia is an incredible foster for us and we’re so grateful to her for coming up with an innovative way to our cats get adopted,” she told Rover. “We couldn’t do what we do without our fosters who give the pets in our care temporary homes while they wait for their forever families.”
There are an estimated 40,000 more cats in American shelters now compared to this time last year—and “kitten season” is on the way when the weather warms—so Best Friends is hoping more people will volunteer to foster kittens for local shelters and rescue organizations. A recent Best Friends spot starring Halle Berry—which aired repeatedly during Animal Planet’s “Puppy Bowl” this year—highlights the joy of fostering kittens.
One of Many Communication Tools
It’s not surprising that felines can learn to use buttons through associative learning, according to Mikel Delgado, PhD, certified applied animal behaviorist, certified cat behavior consultant, founder of the cat behavior consulting company Feline Minds and co-author with Jackson Galaxy of the book “Total Cat Mojo.”
“The cat learns if they push a particular button that there’s a certain outcome. That’s how a lot of learning happens,” she told Rover. “It’s a logical approach. I really like that this particular foster parent has focused on very tangible outcomes and not trying to anthropomorphize what the cat is feeling or thinking.”
Delgado is intrigued by the concept because cats can have more active participation in what happens for them. But she hopes that people will not rely solely on AAC devices to try to better understand their cats.
“I don’t think that’s a replacement for trying new things with your cats and paying attention to their body language,” she said.
For instance, when petting a cat, if they rub into your hand, they’d probably like to continue receiving affection. But if they turn their face away, they’re probably subtly communicating that once was enough and you can stop now, she said.
Enrichment activities such as interactive play with wand toys or using positive reinforcement training to teach a cat to do tricks or go into their carrier also increase bonding.
“We can build better relationships with our cats not just by respecting their wishes but also providing them with enrichment that involves us,” she noted.
The Feedback Loop
Of course, for Greene’s foster cats, learning to “speak” using AAC devices is the doorway to being adopted and developing relationships in their new homes—which excites Christina Hunger, MA, CCC-SLP, the aforementioned founder of the talking animal movement.
“Knowing that the work I started with Stella has made its way to helping cats be more understood and get adopted truly warms my heart and fuels me to keep working on these ideas,” she told Rover. “I am so grateful that others have been inspired to apply my work within their own fields and passions. This way, even more animals are able to communicate and connect deeply with the people around them.”
She loves seeing how much animal lovers want to communicate with their pets.
“This all started as a passion project for me. Once Stella really started talking, I knew it would change the way we perceive our pets, but I never could have anticipated how many people would share in my enthusiasm and continue the movement,” she said. “It feels like such a gift to see my work continue on in homes and shelters across the world.”