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Meet Steve, the Cat That “Talks”(Yes, Really)

A cat behaviourist taught her cat to talk using a soundboard. Here’s how you can teach your cat to speak, too

By: Cassandra Gill

Last Updated:

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Photos courtesy of Kristiina Wilson

From Garfield to the Cheshire Cat, there’s been plenty of talking A-List felines over the years— but now there’s one in real life, too: meet Steve the Cat of TikTok fame.

While the 12-year-old internet star doesn’t exactly spout zingers like Salem on Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the feline has impressively mastered the art of button communication.

To keep it simple, this means the black-and-white piebald is able to use a colourful soundboard to let his human know if he wants to go out, eat, or snuggle, just to name a few actions. The board features pre-recorded buttons that can be pressed to say words, allowing Steve to clearly communicate his wants and needs.

“Steve has always been very communicative and highly intelligent, so I thought training him with the AAC [augmentative and alternative communication] speech buttons would be a good project,” his owner Kristiina Wilson explains to Modern Cat.

Wilson, an animal behaviourist, got the idea for training Steve after seeing fellow Insta-famous pet Stella the dog. The Catahoula/Blue Heeler mix has garnered a fan base of over half-a-million followers on the ‘gram, propelling owner Christina Hunger into a New York Times bestselling author. 

Once Wilson’s Master’s program at Hunter College was put on pause during Covid-19, she found herself with plenty of extra time and decided to channel it into her latest obsession—teaching Steve to talk.

“My thesis work was on hold during Covid—​​it involved working with the Animal Care Centers of NYC, which is the city’s open-intake animal shelter, which was closed to all but essential staff for the first few months of quarantine,” shares Wilson, who was a fashion photographer for 15 years before focusing on animals.

Steve the cat

Notably, her thesis explores the effects of fluorescent light on the stress behaviour of shelter animals.

“I had seen Christina Hunger’s amazing work with Stella. I wanted to do something science-based and fun to bridge the gap while I waited for data collection to begin again.” 

Surprisingly—or perhaps not so surprisingly—Steve was a natural at picking up the new skill. 

“He learned super quick. Steve had the first button—‘Outside’—down in four days and the other buttons followed in quick succession,” she explains, breaking down how it all actually works.

“It’s important to remember that this is not language or speech acquisition—instead, it’s associative concept training,” Wilson says. “In the same way that a dog can be trained to ring a bell to communicate that he or she wants to go outside, each button is associated with a simple concept that represents something the animal might need or want. Training involves consistency and time spent on the part of the human, and simple repetition with button-pushing when modelling the action it represents.”

In the same way that a dog can be trained to ring a bell to communicate that he or she wants to go outside, each button is associated with a simple concept that represents something the animal might need or want.

Can you teach your cat too? 

While there’s still plenty of research to be done, a recent academic study did find that there is the possibility of “genius” dogs—and likely “genius” cats, too—Wilson shares.

“Steve has always been highly motivated and extremely communicative, and I believe the combination of his drive and interest plus my behavioural training made our work together go so smoothly,” Wilson adds of her BFF.

While Steve may be particularly well suited to the challenge, Kristiina’s stacked resume was also undeniably influential here.

The New York City resident has spent two decades working with both domestic and feral cats, including fostering and placing over 400 abandoned cats in homes. She decided to trade her long-term fashion career for a full-time one with the cats four years ago, leading her to both go back to school and become a certified animal behaviourist via the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. 

Wilson’s growing social media presence has also played a role in her work, as followers and friends are able to help connect her with those who may be looking to take a new four-legged friend in—developing a community in NYC and beyond.

She currently has 10 cats at home, including Steve, whom she rescued when he was just a few days old, along with his feral mama. Wilson says she knew early on there was something different and special about her beloved housemate, who boasts plenty of human-like qualities (sitting upright being a frequent one). 

“He’s a frat boy trapped in a cat’s body,” she says when asked how she would describe her best guy. A glance at his Instagram doesn’t seem to prove the statement wrong: he seemingly takes any opportunity to sprawl himself out or plop down on the sofa for some good ol’ fashioned telly. Of her 10 cats, Steve is the only one to acquire the skillset. 

“Steve is the only one who pushes the buttons, says Wilson. “Everyone else understands them and will come when they hear them used for the rewards requested—play and food and outside, usually. Generally, only one cat in a multi-pet household uses the buttons. I’m not sure if it’s a social hierarchy thing or not.”

Social media stardom wasn’t part of Wilson’s plan when she hopped on the Covid-spurred TikTok train. Her content quickly started going viral on the platform, building an impressive 195,000 followers on her @stinktok page as of summer 2021. Steve also has his own Instagram account,
@thedailysteveb, where thousands of fans follow closely for an inside look at his home life, including, of course, that button pushing (he uses ‘Outside’ the most and ‘Eat’ the least).

“I started it as a personal account for fun during Covid because I was bored…after a month or so I started posting cat content because we have 10 cats, so that’s a big part of my life. Once I started working with Steve and the buttons, the account took off, but I never expected or planned for him to blow up!” she notes.

“Honestly, I was shocked that people were so excited about Steve’s button use!” Wilson confesses. The celeb cat is already living his best influencer life, right down to the fancy packages (he recently got one sent from My Lovely Feline).

“Of course, I think Steve is the best guy in the world, so I love that other people are coming around and getting to know him also. It makes me so happy when other people love Steve—it’s truly a heart warmer.”

Scrolling through Steve’s page, it seems he was destined for stardom in some capacity. Just recently, the cat—who is called “Steven” during serious discussions—got sneaky with his mom. Using the buttons, he hit “lady” and “snuggle” to get Wilson up and off the couch before making a run for the door while she was distracted! “The Invention of Lying featuring ME,” the LOL-worthy caption read. 

He’s not afraid to share an opinion, either: when Jennifer Lopez was singing at Joe Biden’s inauguration last January, Steve went right ahead and tapped the “no” button. 

“I have been careful to not give Steve any buttons that would anthropomorphize him or present him with concepts that don’t have a direct 1:1 translation,” she adds on a serious note, also sharing advice for cat owners who may want to try training their own pets at home.

“Consistency is key! When training, make sure to always model your button pushes and [associated] activity whenever possible. Once your cat is trained, continue to reinforce concepts and respond to your pet with your own button pushes,” she says. 

One major no-no: making the first button a “food” word. “Your cat may associate all further buttons with food if you do,” she points out. “Praise and patience go a long way,” she also shares.

More tips can also be found on Wilson’s website, which has full guides, tips, and even a community forum for other cat lovers to connect. There’s also plenty of easy-to-follow videos for cats and their owners wanting to get started using AAC speech buttons. ν

Last Updated:

By: Cassandra Gill
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