Learn Animals in Italian: 25 Vocabulary Words with Some Cool Cultural Context
Ever wondered what daily feeding time would sound like if Noah (of Noah’s Ark, that is) were Italian?
You’d certainly hear screams of“Pesce!Pesce!” (“Fish! Fish!”) or “Pollo! Pollo!” (“Chicken! Chicken!”).
Yep, it’d sound exactly like your Italian farmer’s market. (Except the fish wouldn’t actually come to Noah because they’d be slumming it outside the ark.)
In this post, we’ll add to your Italian vocabulary list by learning all about animals in Italian.
And we start with man’s best friend—the one who chews on the remote and trashes every tissue roll in the house (but you still love that good boi).
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25 Animals in Italian to Take You on a Language Safari
Before you embark on this safari, it’s important to remember that you shouldn’t learn vocabulary in isolation.
To help ensure that these words stick in your mind, we’ve also included plenty of cultural information, some interesting facts, a few Italian sayings and even some grammar info.
Please remember to keep your hands and head inside the vehicle at all times as you enjoy this safari study of 25 animals in Italian!
1. Il Cane — The Dog
There’s an Italian saying: Cane non mangia cane (Dog does not eat dog), which might sound like a familiar English idiom… except it’s the complete opposite.
In English, it’s a “dog-eat-dog world,” which means that you should do whatever you need to get on top, even if it means harming your own companions.
But the Italian idiom means “there’s honor among thieves,” which also totally makes literal sense.
If you’re a dog in Italy, let’s say Rome, and you’re roaming the alleys and backstreets scavenging for food, you’d never think about harming your own kind no matter how hungry you get. Because you know that any moment now, a busboy might bust out of some restaurant’s backdoor and serve you those authentic leftover pastas and pizzas from the tables of those wonderful English-speaking tourists you’ve grown accustomed to.
So no, dog does not eat dog.
2. Il Gatto — The Cat
If you love cats and easily spend hours on YouTube looking at cats running after that elusive red dot, then you can at least take time to know what “cat” is in other languages. Which is gatto in Italian, gato in Spanish and gato in Portuguese. (There, that’s three languages down.)
So Dr. Seuss’ “The Cat in the Hat” becomes “Il Gatto e il Cappello Matto” in Italian. And “Tom and Jerry” becomes… well, still “Tom and Jerry.”
3. Il Pesce — The Fish
Often, Italian idioms and expressions use animal characteristics to convey meaning. One of them is Essere muto come un pesce, which means “Silent as a fish.” (Because have you ever heard a fish say something… except in commercials and movies?)
The saying means you’re tight-lipped, and wouldn’t reveal a secret. So when Tessio in “The Godfather” says “…Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes,” it’s safe to say he’ll never be telling any more secrets.
Speaking of fishes, Pesce d’Aprile (Fish of April) is Italy’s version of “April Fool’s Day” where one of the common pranks school children perpetrate is sticking a paper fish on the back of a frenemy.
4. L’uccello — The Bird
For you bird watchers out there, according to EBN Italia, Italy has the fourth-highest recorded number of bird species in Europe—after UK, France and Spain.
Italy’s location makes it a great rest stop for birds seasonally migrating from continental Europe to Africa via the Mediterranean. So if seeing birds absolutely tickles your fancy, Italy can be a great bird-watching option.
5. Il Pollo — The Chicken
In figures of speech and idiomatic expressions, chickens don’t get the respect they deserve.
In English, being called a “chicken” has spurred too many a drunk teenager to jump from the roof straight into a swimming pool… then to the emergency room—just to prove he’s no chicken. It’s a powerful taunt that friends use to pressure action—stupid action, in most cases.
Italians have a phrase, Un pollo da spennare (A chicken waiting to be plucked), which refers to somebody about to be taken for a ride.
There’s a negative connotation hanging over every chicken’s head, isn’t there? How grossly unfair!
6. La Mucca — The Cow
We started out speaking about animals in all their glory but we can’t help but see cows in terms of food.
Did you know that la mucca figures into many of those tasty Italian dishes? And I’m not just talking about the rib-eye or the sirloin. I’m talking about lasagna, pizzaiola, spaghetti, meatballs etc. They’re either ground, hidden in the sauce or sandwiched between sheets of pasta. Any way you cut it, it’s there.
Beef is an ingredient that makes those Italian dishes “Italian.”
7. Il Cavallo — The Horse
At the mention of il cavallo, cavalry comes to mind—horsemen or soldiers on horses ready to rock and roll.
Don’t forget to pronounce your double l. Unlike Spanish where the double l is pronounced as a y, in Italian, words are often pronounced as they’re spelled. So the l’s are sounded—like in tortellini, mozzarella and tagliatelle.
Okay, let’s get off this “foodie” train of thought and move to the next animal.
8. La Scimmia — The Monkey
The sc in scimmia is pronounced as a sh.This is one of those few Italian pronunciation quirks where the word’s pronunciation varies a little bit from its spelling.
9. Il Serpente — The Snake
The Italian word for snake is quite easy to remember because it contains the word “serpent.” And a serpent, at least according to the Bible, is a type of snake who tempts naked women to eat delicious apples.
There, now you’ll never forget how to say “snake” in Italian!
10. La Rana — The Frog
It’s Budweiser’s fault. When I think of frogs, I think of Budweiser commercials.
I’ll never fathom why a company whose product you put in your mouth chose to associate itself with a slimy amphibian.
But while we’re on the subject, here’s an Italian fairytale about a frog that could actually do you some good. It’s a tale of diversity, humility and friendship. This 10-minute story will not only help you remember la rana (thanks to the repetition), it’ll also throw in some other useful vocabulary along the way! Check it out.
11. Il Coccodrillo — The Crocodile
Il coccodrillo and Italian clothing brands have a long-standing relationship. Not a very good one for the crocodiles though, because their hides happen to be some of the most sought-after items in the fashion world. They make really luxurious shoes, bags and belts.
12. La Tigre — The Tiger
One look and it’s unmistakable: tigre is the Italian cousin of “tiger.” It’s pretty hard not to see the resemblance! That’s because the two words are cognates.
Cognates are words in different languages that have similar origins and therefore have a similar sound, look and meaning. For English and Italian, cognates include words like credibile (credible), informazione (information) and exonomico (economic).
13. Il Leone — The Lion
Speaking of cognates, this is another one.
Il leone is a big one in Italy. You can see sculptures of them adorning historical sites, public buildings and museums. The Medicis, a powerful Italian family in the 16th century, used lions to symbolize their power and commissioned sculptures for their estate in Rome.
The “Medici Lion” has been copied and adapted in 30 different locations.
The city of Venice itself is symbolized by Il leone. There’s a sobering story about Venetian lions and cages. It’s said that there used to be an official state lion that was housed in a golden cage in Piazza San Marco. To get straight to the point, he died. It’s said that he constantly licked his golden confines and was poisoned because of it.
Sad. If only he’d learned to pawn the cage to one of the merchants of Venice.
14. L’orso — The Bear
The apostrophe between l and o signifies that there’s an a missing in between them. But instead of saying la orso, which really wastes precious time, especially when you’re trying to run away from it, the ingenious Italians scream, “L’orso! L’orso!”
They skip the a and slide directly to the o.
It’s like how saying “Y’all” instead of “You all” in English.
15. La Giraffa — The Giraffe
Seeing one of these majestic creatures in real life is such a treat because giraffes and humans don’t normally cohabitate. (We’d never be able to compromise on how high to place the kitchen cupboards.)
And when you see more than one giraffe, it’s an even more magical situation. In that case, they aren’t giraffa anymore, because more than one giraffe is called giraffe in Italian.
In English, we add s to make the plural form of a word. In Italian, we change the last letter, instead. Typically, a becomes e. So from one casa (house), we have many case (houses).
In Italian, the masculine o ending is changed to i. So you have one libro (book) and many libri (books).
16. L’elefante — The Elephant
You won’t see l’elefante in any of the circuses or performances in Italy anymore. In 2017, the country joined 40 other nations in banning the use of elephants, lions, bears and other animals in circuses because of the maltreatment these fellows undergo in these environments.
In other news, speaking of maltreatment, you can still secretly refer to your mother-in-law as l’elefante (but don’t tell her I gave you that idea).
17. L’asino — The Donkey
To remember the Italian word for donkey, just remember the alternate way to say donkey in English, which sounds like the first two letters of asino.
Incidentally, it’s also what your mother-in-law secretly calls you.
18. Il Lupo — The Wolf
There’s an Italian idiom, In bocca al lupo (In the wolf’s mouth), which is the equivalent of the English “break a leg.”
The Italian expression is used more generally to wish someone good luck, not just before a stage performance. So maybe your Italian friend is about to take a test, go in for an interview or sit down for an expensive date. You can send him off with that.
The standard response isCrepi il lupo! (May the wolf die!).
19. La Tartaruga — The Turtle
Wolves and snakes might get a bad rap but la tartaruga, on the other hand, gets the best treatment. He doesn’t need to move very fast but somehow, he still manages to win the race. He’s often used as the protagonist in children’s stories teaching the value of “slow and steady wins the race”—which doesn’t really work that well in sports and in real life.
That said, turtles do make great turtle soup… or so I’m told.
20. Il Coniglio — The Rabbit
Coniglio, is pronounced as “kon-ee-lyee-oh.” Because gl is followed by an i, it’s a special case. When this happens, the “lyee” sound is used.
Otherwise, gl would simply sound the same as the English words “glory” or “glad.”
21. Lo Squalo — The Shark
For some reason, squalo doesn’t have the same menacing impact as the word “shark.” A few notes of the ominous “Jaws” soundtrack somehow makes you want to run somewhere, even if you’re already in the middle of dry land.
Squalo, on the other hand, sounds like your pet goldfish who takes Alzheimer’s medication.
22. Il Toro — The Bull
Il toro isn’t just the soccer nickname for Italian striker Christian Vieri, who was once considered the most expensive player of the sport after a blockbuster deal in 1999.
“Il Toro” is also the title of a comedy-drama film about two friends who stole a stud bull. The plan was to sell the priced stud for huge sums of money, but you know something just has to happen along the way to test the friends’ faith… and bullheadedness.
The film won the “Silver Lion” in the 51st Venice International Film Festival. (No bulls were harmed in the making of the film.)
23. La Zebra — The Zebra
This reminds me of a friend who randomly places la and il before nouns and thinks he’s already speaking Italian. “Hey Stevie, I just parked ‘la car’ in ‘la garage.’ See yah!”
But in this case, you really do just put la in front of the word and indeed, you make that zebra Italian.
24. La Farfalla — The Butterfly
On a visit to a butterfly dome, one of the guides said that the average life span of a butterfly is around two weeks. Some species even live for just a day.
If you find yourself fascinated by these lovely creatures, you might want to visit the town of Bordano in Northeastern Italy, which is known as “The Butterfly Town.” The area happens to have the perfect micro-climate that makes butterflies flourish.
If you come between March and October, you can visit the “Butterfly House” where over a thousand butterflies from all over the world are housed in three huge greenhouses that mimic the environs of the Amazon rainforest.
25. La Formica — The Ant
And last, but certainly not least, we have the smallest of the bunch: the big-hearted ant.
And no, this isn’t the same “formica” that you might see on mid-19th century American kitchen counter-tops.
La formica is an interesting creature. It’s considered one of the strongest animal, relative to size. It can carry loads several times its body weight. (Which is still not much, if we’re going to be totally honest about it. The strongest ant won’t out-lift a paraplegic mouse. But it’s still impressive when you consider how tiny they are!)
The bullet ant, which is found in the thick jungles of the Amazon, is reported to have the most painful sting in the world. Yes, more painful than when your Italian girlfriend breaks up with you.
Ants can “enslave” their own kind and make them work for the good of the group.
And on that bright note, before things turn dark, we round up our little safari.
By now, you should already know that animals are animals, in any language and in any time zone. Your dog will give you the same love and loyalty whether you call him “Rover” or “Mussolini.” And yes, he’ll find every last remote control in your house and make it his chew toy.
You’re now armed to go out and speak in Italian about the animal world. I wish you the best of luck as you continue learning Italian!
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)