Cats may be the masters of indifference, but new research suggests that they are in fact fully aware when they are being directly addressed by their human. The fact the aloof floofs don’t always react may reflect a personal choice to ignore us rather than an inability to recognize that they are being spoken to.
“Cats – who were not so long ago considered as independent and ungrateful creatures – are in fact very well capable of creating and fostering attachment bonds with humans,” write the study authors. Indeed, recent research has shown that pet cats often prefer cuddles with their owner to food, while other studies have revealed that the seemingly indifferent fuzzies miss their owners when separated for long periods.
Building on these findings, the new study provides evidence that cats alter their behavior when they hear their owner’s voice directed to them, but not when they hear the voice of a stranger or that of their owner speaking to another person.
To conduct their research, the study authors recruited 16 housecats, all of whom were owned by French veterinary students. When the cats heard a recording of their owner calling their name, the majority displayed an increase in engagement by turning their ears towards the speakers, moving around with greater intensity, or exhibiting dilated pupils.
In contrast, the cats generally decreased their behavior intensity when they heard the voice of a stranger calling their name.
The researchers then played recordings of the animals’ owners saying things like “tu veux jouer?” (French for “do you want to play?”) and “tu veux manger?” (“do you want to eat?”), first in a tone they would normally use when addressing their cat, and then in a tone they would use when talking to a human.
The felines only reacted when they heard the “cat-directed speech (CDS)” suggesting that they are able to distinguish between phrases uttered for their benefit and those that are intended for someone else’s ears.
A cat reacts to the voice of its owner, masked by the sound of a 300 Hertz tone.
When listening to the same sentences spoken by a stranger, the animals remained uninterested regardless of the tone used. The authors conclude that “cats can discriminate speech specifically addressed to them from speech addressed to adult humans, when sentences are uttered by their owners.”
Contrarily, previous research has indicated that dogs respond to “dog-directed speech (DDS)” even when spoken by a stranger. That cats appear unable to identify CDS spoken by an unfamiliar human may reflect their reluctance to engage with strangers, but could also be a result of their lack of experience with people other than their owner.
“Our results highlight the importance of one-to-one relationships for indoor companion cats, who do not seem to generalize the communication developed with one human to all human interlocutors,” write the study authors. Whether outdoor cats – who may have more interactions with unfamiliar people – are more attuned to the voices of strangers is something that will need to be addressed in future studies.
Interestingly, the researchers point out that pet cats often modify their own vocalizations when addressing their owners, and tend to purr in a higher pitch than feral cats. It has been suggested that this intonation tugs a little harder on human heartstrings and prompts more sympathetic reactions from owners.
“The fact that, in return, cats show a greater reaction when their humans specifically address them, brings a new dimension to previous considerations of this reciprocal relationship,” write the authors.
The study has been published in the journal Animal Cognition.