Shortly after bringing home Puffin the Scottish Fold, Nikiski resident Geri Litzen knew the cat was pretty sharp. Now, almost two years later, Puffin uses buttons to talk in multiple word sentences, Litzen says, and has a TikTok following of nearly 21,000.
“For me, this is enriching their life,” Litzen said. “There’s just this interaction, this understanding between us and I think it just makes for a happier life. … The communication is so real and so deep.”
Rather than working to build an audience, she said her main goal is to share that connection with others in the community.
On Friday, during a visit by the Clarion to his home, Puffin wasn’t very talkative, keeping his distance while Litzen was talking about him. He did showcase some of his tricks, playing dead and standing like a meerkat for treats.
Litzen had taught her previous cat, Penguin, to do a few tricks, and she said those tricks allowed for a connection between them even when Penguin grew old and blind, ultimately living to be 17 years old.
“When we lost her I thought, ‘I’ll go without a cat for a while.’ I really couldn’t,” she said.
So Litzen started looking for a cat. She knew Puffin was the one when she saw his “little funny face.” When she brought Puffin home, he quickly showed off his intelligence — as well as a penchant for mischief.
“He was always up to something, so I thought I should start, maybe, just directing a little,” she said.
By the time Puffin was around 13 weeks old, Litzen was taking him everywhere, but she got tired of trying to track him down each time.
“It was hard to search the entire house every time I wanted to go somewhere,” she said. So she taught Puffin to climb a cat tree for a treat where she could then just scoop him up and take off.
On only the third try, Litzen tried to see if Puffin would come without the treat.
“So I said ‘Puffin, get in your tree!’ and he came running. I mean like a streak, and he got in his tree and waited for a treat,” she said. “I thought, yeah, he’s intelligent. He’s really intelligent. So I started trick training him.”
As she started training Puffin, Litzen said she was reminded of a trick she does with her horses.
Litzen runs Milestones Equine Therapy from her home, where she performs different methods of physical and mental therapy through interaction with horses. A trick — which she said was really just a gimmick — is to have clients ask a question, to which the horses push buttons to say either yes or no.
“They don’t know which one it is, but I just thought these buttons are kind of funny,” Litzen said.
She also saw on social media that people were using buttons to talk with animals. Companies like FluentPet sell programmable buttons that users on TikTok, Instagram and other platforms use to talk to their pets.
Litzen has a master’s degree in Deaf education, and a background in special education. She began looking into the idea, and said that a speech pathologist who works on Instagram using the handle Hunger for Words convinced her that the science was sound.
In January, when Puffin was over a year old, Litzen began purchasing and introducing buttons.
Now he has almost 40.
“Once he caught on that the buttons meant something, he almost asks now what he can do with it.”
Litzen said that it’s important to start with at least two, so the animal can learn that different buttons have different meanings.
She also said that she speaks the word and introduces it for a while before adding the button.
She also models sentences for Puffin, pressing buttons like “Puffin, want, now” to ask what he wants and encourage him to respond.
One of the first buttons was “pets.”
Puffin has buttons for the names of every member of Litzen’s family, buttons for treats, water and food, buttons for different games and buttons for connecting phrases, like “want.”
Litzen said she adds buttons as necessary, and she could probably add a couple each week.
It’s been fascinating, Litzen said, to watch Puffin develop sentences and connections between buttons, even moving around the mat to deliberately choose terms.
“He’s very intentional.”
Puffin will press buttons, then look at Litzen and wait for a response. She says she can see he understands the two-way street that is communication.
Litzen said her husband was a serious skeptic, but at this point, he’s seen Puffin do so many things that he’s starting to catch on.
She described her husband sitting and eating. Puffin wanted on his lap. Litzen’s husband said no, and Puffin went right over to the mat and pushed “mad.”
Then Puffin sat in the corner and gave the family the cold shoulder.
Puffin would also complain about the family’s new corgi puppy, Tumbleweed.
“‘Dog noise, dog noise,’ I was going to give him a button that said annoying, but then he started playing with them,” Litzen said.
She described a friend of her daughters who lived with them for a while. Litzen added a button for the woman’s name, and Puffin moved from stranger to her name. Then, one day, Puffin was mad at her, and pushed “mad” and “stranger”
“Which was just crazy. He went back to the old word that we had first called her.”
Especially given her background in language, Litzen said watching Puffin pick things up has been fascinating.
She described how her fascination with animals engaging in language in particular sprung from Coco the Gorilla, who knew sign language, as well as a story she saw on social media about a dachshund who used buttons and said “Stranger, mouth, teeth,” and “Stranger, mouth, ouch,” communicating a life threatening abscess that wouldn’t otherwise be caught.
Litzen said she started putting videos of Puffin on social media because it was a chance to meet other people doing the same work.
“I don’t really care about growing the audience,” she said. “I want to connect with people that are doing this, I can learn from them and they can learn from us.”
She had used TikTok and Instagram to promote her art, but they hadn’t gained any traction.
A video of Puffin doing a trick, on the other hand, found 50,000 views overnight.
“That kind of scared me,” Litzen said. “People just kind of got really excited about Puffin, his personality and everything.”
In just the last couple of weeks, Litzen has started connecting over Instagram, sharing tips and tricks with other people talking to their pets.
“The ultimate goal is to just enrich the relationship with your animal,” she said. “Explore that communication, explore that bond, have them reach their potential as a member of your household — a member of your family.”
“People are asking what do I do? How do I make him do it? That’s what you don’t do. You just make it fun, make it play.”
She said it’s probably easier to start with younger cats, but doesn’t think age would be a prohibitive barrier for any animal.
Puffin didn’t start the buttons as a kitten.
“He was a full grown cat. I wanted him to be neutered, I wanted him to be mature.”
Litzen said Puffin uses the buttons regularly, every day, especially in the morning and at night.
Litzen said she uses the buttons produced by FluentPet because they’re easy for her small cat to push. After she put videos of Puffin on TikTok for a while, they reached out and asked Puffin to be an affiliate. The company reposts some of Puffin’s videos as promotional content, and Litzen gets a small cut of profit when Puffin’s coupon code — puffincantalk — is used.
To try and meet more local people who are talking to their pets, Litzen said she started a Facebook group — Alaska Fluent Pets — though it doesn’t have any other members yet.
Litzen said when she started with the buttons, she didn’t have any resources. She’s hoping to be that for others.
“I think it’d be fun because I love language. I think it’d be fun to help people get started,” she said.
Litzen is also beginning to introduce buttons to Tumbleweed, and said she’s considering doing the same for her horses, though she said that might be more work than she should be taking on.
She’s seen cats, dogs, horses, guinea pigs and rabbits use buttons in different contexts, and she said though she hasn’t seen birds, they could almost certainly do it.
“One of the best tips I give people is have high expectations,” Litzen said. “They will blow your mind.”
Litzen said she’s not worried about skeptics.
“It doesn’t matter to me if you believe it or not,” she said.
She said anyone who spends time in her house will see it happen and be blown away.
Puffin can be found on TikTok at @puffindoestricks.