It’s no secret that Bunny the Talking Dog has cast a spell over the internet.
In case you’ve been on a digital detox in the past few years, Bunny is TikTok’s beloved “talking” Sheepadoodle, who uses an Assistive and Alternative Communication (AAC) device to communicate with its human parent. As Salon reported, Bunny has stunned her followers by asking seemingly existential questions, recalling her dreams and wondering about Uni, the cat she was living with who had disappeared. In fact, it’s not just Bunny anymore. There’s also Billi, a 13-year-old Florida housecat who has captured the internet’s attention by pushing buttons to communicate.
Both animals are enrolled in a project called TheyCanTalk, which is trying to better understand whether animals can use AAC systems to communicate with humans. The project consists of dogs, cats, a small group of horses and a peacock. In the study, participants are given instructions on how to set up their UK keys. They usually start with simple words like “outside” and “play” associated with their buttons. Pet parents set up cameras to constantly monitor the animals when they’re in front of their boards, data that’s sent to the lab, where researchers examine what they’re saying.
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As social media and these talking animals continue to grow in popularity, some may be wondering: Can any species of animal learn to speak with an AAC device?
“When we first started doing this, my expectation was that we would see dogs do surprisingly well, but I didn’t expect that we would see so much of great performance from non-canines,” said Leo Trottier, a cognitive scientist and Founder of How.TheyCanTalk Research and developer of the FluentPet system used by Bunny and Billi. “Dogs have evolved with us for thousands of years. We have subjected them to aggressive selective breeding. Her behavior is obvious; they’re very interested in us, they routinely look us in the eye when we talk to them, she’s known to be able to recognize pointing gestures that were last shown, so I was surprised to see how cats end up performing.”
In fact, as Salon previously reported, Billi speaks up to 50 words. And while there are some anecdotal differences between cats and dogs using the buttons, the fact that a non-canine species has found success with them gives Trottier the assurance that perhaps any animal can use them.
“We have birds that use them. The evidence for the birds is pretty limited, but I’m not going to copy it, but I think the evidence that cats use the buttons naturally or in a contextual way is stronger than for birds,” Trottier said. “But it seems surprising that many non-canine species are better at this than expected.”
While Trottier admits he’s not very “optimistic about reptiles,” the surprising fact that a non-canine species seems to be doing better with the buttons than expected raises new questions about animals, language, and communication. Part of the reason animals don’t talk like humans is because of vocal anatomy: they may lack the flexibility of the tongue to speak, the vocal cords, or the muscles of the mouth. Brain power also gives people an advantage when they can speak, according to a 2018 Frontiers in Neuroscience study. But that doesn’t mean animals don’t communicate in their own way or have the ability to mimic human speech. A study published in 2018 found that orca whales can mimic words like “hello” and “bye.” A 2016 showed that an orangutan was able to copy the pitch and tone of sounds made by researchers.
AAC devices were designed to help people who were struggling to express natural language. If animals are struggling, could it be possible for animals to be encouraged to express themselves? This is exactly what inspired Christina Hunger, a speech-language pathologist who famously taught her dog Stella how to use an AAC machine. There was some evidence that non-dogs and cats would be successful at using AAC—like a bottleneck-nosed dolphin pushing a paddle to sing “yes.”
Trottier said that cats’ success in using an AAC device “refined” the questions: “What were the effects of coevolution? And what are the things that stand in the way of language use by nonhuman animals?”
The buttons, Trottier said, which are similar to each other but slightly different, could be a means of being something “language-friendly”.
“Because that’s what words are, words are those things that we share with each other that are both very similar, they’re all just sounds made by our lips, but they’re also a bit different, right?” said Trottier. “And so it could be that the main barrier to language use in nonhuman animals — well, obviously there’s going to be general intelligence — but it could be the case that language ability is somewhat independent and depends on some kind of unique set of cognitive abilities that maybe activated by buttons.”
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