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German has gender-specific variants for some animal nouns (e.g., Kater and Hündin), and speakers can use them to specify or emphasize the sex of a particular animal. These can be useful in conversations with veterinarians or breeders, just as tom and queen might be used among English-speaking cat breeders.

If I have a male cat and am in a casual conversation with someone who really doesn't care about the sex of my pets, would I say Ich habe eine Katze or Ich habe einen Kater? Katze seems inaccurate. Kater seems overfastidious in casual conversation, and (according to Google Translate) it might sound like I had been drinking too much.

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    Yes, "Kater" in german is also a synonym for "hangover". – Wernfried Domscheit Oct 11 '14 at 19:30
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Katze is used as standard for both genders, if you emphasize it being a Kater, you are a crazy old cat lady. ;)

Wir haben eine Katze.

Wir haben einen Hund.

Wir haben ein Kaninchen.

Funny thing, our vet always refers to animals as "him", independent of the gender, so it doesn't seem to matter what you use. Don't remember what he used when he talked about the ovaries of the poor "him". :)

  • I asked my question because I practice my German with a wonderful lady from Germany who has several dozen cats in her large country home, and she is very careful to use words like Kater and Hündin. I was curious whether this usage was the exception or the rule! – Dan Leifker Oct 12 '14 at 15:23
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I think the best way to approach the gender issue of the word cat, is to think of it as a generic feminine (compare roughly to Hebamme, Maus or Ente), just like, e.g., Schüler is a generic masculine. Thus, unless the context makes clear that Katze refers to female cats, you must specify this, e.g., using the adjektiv weiblich.

Some examples (with an example for Schüler for comparison):

Ich habe eine Katze. – I have one cat (which can have either gender).
Ich kenne einen Schüler. – I know one pupil (which can have either gender).

Ich habe einen Kater. – I have one male cat.
Ich kenne eine Schülerin. – I know one female pupil.

Ich habe eine weibliche Katze. – I have one female cat.
Ich kenne einen männlichen Schüler. – I know one male pupil.

 

Ich habe eine Katze und einen Kater. – I have one female and one male cat.
In meiner Klasse sind 15 Schüler und 13 Schülerinnen. – There are 15 male and 13 female pupils in my class.

(The generic feminine or masculine is dissolved by the context, as you are contrasting with Kater or Schülerin, respectively)

 

Rollo ist die einzige weiße Katze in der Straße. – Rollo (who can have either gender) is the street’s only white cat (of either gender).
Alex war der größte Schüler der Klasse. – Alex (who can have either gender) was the largest pupil of the class (of either gender).

This example stays the same, if Alex is replaced with clearly gendered name like Alexander or Alexandra.

Rollo ist die einzige weiße weibliche Katze in der Straße. – Rollo is the street’s only white female cat.
Alexander war der größte männliche Schüler der Klasse. – Alexander was the largest male pupil of the class.

Rollo ist der einzige weiße Kater in der Straße. – Rollo is the street’s only white male cat.
Alexandra war die größte Schülerin der Klasse. – Alexandra was the largest female pupil of the class.

  • Your explanation is wonderful and it raises a new question. Suppose my German teacher in the U.S. is a woman. If I go to Germany, and the topic of my German study comes up in a casual conversation where my teacher's gender is unimportant, would I mention her as mein Deutschlehrer or meine Deutschlehrerin? Or are they interchangeable until her gender becomes relevant to the conversation? – Dan Leifker Oct 12 '14 at 15:39
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    @Grantwalzer: Using a gender-specific form in this sentence would change the meaning. “Alexandra war die größte Schülerin“ is not the same as “Alexandra war der größte Schüler“ – in the first case, there may be a male pupil larger than her, in the second, this is not possible. (By the way, the first sentence is an example for a sentence that gets much more complicated if you do not have the generic masculine.) – Wrzlprmft Oct 14 '14 at 11:11
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    It is ambiguous indeed, but if you interpret it that way, then you have no way of pointing out the biggest pupil by only using singular. To me, "Excelsia ist die größte Schülerin" predominantly conveys her being the tallest of all pupils. – user6191 Oct 14 '14 at 13:23
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    @Grantwalzer: I can only disagree with your last statement. – Wrzlprmft Oct 14 '14 at 13:34
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    @DanLeifker: Standard grammar is meine Kollegen. What is more polite, is subject to strong debate: You will find people who will find either version impolite. I suggest to ask a separate question about this – if you can find a way to make it not opinion-based. – Wrzlprmft Oct 15 '14 at 16:04
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We Germans often just say Katze in normal conversations, as Kater may sound like you really want to point out that your cat is male. In a formal letter and in a normal letter, it is a bit more common to write Katze or Kater, depending on the sex. So for answering your question, Katze should be totally fine if the other person doesn't care about the sex of your pets or if it isn't important.

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It really depends on the context. Reason: Katze really has two definitions, one being the type of animal and the other referring to it being female.

In regular speech, if you don't necessarily put attention on the gender, Katze is more common. But it's also a matter of preference. If you say Katerina instead, it should be no problem (unless you're talking to a very pedantic German).

  • "Katerina?" Well, that would be a female first name (usually with 'h'). As native speaker I don't associate "cat" at all. – Stephie Jul 27 '15 at 21:05

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