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Real Dr. Dolittles: Most claim to understand pet

/ Source: The Associated Press

Stephen King of rural Texas says he has his dog's vocabulary figured out. Molly Thibodeau says her cats comprehend her so well that they get it when she simply points.

Sixty-seven percent of pet owners say they understand their animals' woofs, meows or other sounds, including 18 percent like King and Thibodeau who say they comprehend completely, according to an Associated poll released Wednesday. In a finding many parents of teenagers would no doubt envy, 62 percent of pet owners say that when they speak, their critter gets the message.

"I speak to her on limited subjects and she does the same with me," said King, 63, a retired chemist from Kempner, Texas, who says he understands his dog, Dagny's, repertoire of barks signaling anger, eagerness, contentment and other feelings. "Common sense works 98 percent of the time."

The high level of communication is but one way the poll highlights the bond between many owners and their pets. According to the survey, conducted by GfK, only one in seven owners say they have been forced to trim spending for their pets during the past year's recession. More than four in 10 — about as many as last year — are buying holiday gifts for their animals.

More women than men say they and their pets understand each other's verbal stabs at communication. Older and lower-income people are also likelier to cite high levels of comprehension between them and their animals.

Thibodeau, 20, of Fort Riley, Kan., said her two cats understand her so completely that if she wants to shoo them off furniture, "I point at them and they get right down."

More women than men say they understand pets

On the flip side, men are twice as likely as women to say they and their pets are clueless about what each is saying to the other — a group that overall comprises fewer than one in 10 pet owners.

Three in 10 dog owners think their pet is baffled when they speak to it, compared with nearly half of cat owners who say the same about their animal.

When it comes to communicating in the other direction, cat owners do better. Twenty-five percent of them say they completely understand their cats' meows, compared with 16 percent of dog owners who claim to be totally fluent in barks.

But Jane Starring, 48, of Barrington, R.I., says she and her family are confounded by their 8-year-old cat, Flannel, who often chases people about the house meowing.

"We're not sure we're making much progress understanding him," said Starring. "I don't know what his point is."

William Miller, a professor of veterinary medicine and medical director of Cornell University's Companion Animal Hospital, says it's not unusual for many owners and pets to understand some of each other's speech. He said animals and people learn to communicate verbally by over time associating certain sounds with actions, such as a particular bark when a dog wishes to go outside or the soothing tone many people use when petting their cat.

"It's not like you'll sit down and have a U.N. conversation with them" spoken in different languages, Miller said.

74 percent of pet owners have a dog

With many households having more than one pet, 74 percent of all pet owners have a dog and 46 percent have a cat, according to the poll. Men and women were about equally likely to own either kind of animal.

Just 15 percent of all owners said they have scaled back spending for their pets in the past year, suggesting the recession is prompting many to save money other ways before squeezing their pet budget.

"They look to me for food and shelter just like my children do," said Charlotte Phillips, 40, of Abingdon, Va., a mother of two whose family is cutting its overall spending but not for its two dogs and five cats. "They can't fend for themselves."

Of the group that is cutting back, 27 percent say they have seriously considered giving up their pet. Seventy-one percent say they've thought about buying it fewer toys or clothes, while 60 percent cite switching to less costly pet food.

About half spending less for pets say they've thought about postponing routine veterinary visits and getting less grooming. About one in five have considered delaying care for an animal's serious health problems or cutting day care or walking services.

Even so, 43 percent of owners said they would buy holiday gifts for their pets, compared with 46 percent who said they had done so last year. Dogs would seem to have more to look forward to this season: 48 percent of dog owners but just 28 percent of cat owners say they will buy their pets gifts.

The poll was conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media from Dec. 3-8 and involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,129 randomly chosen pet owners. The margin of sampling error in the poll is plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.