New research suggests that cats can distinguish their owner’s voice from that of a stranger’s, while also being able to identify when their owner is specifically talking to them. The findings are the latest to indicate that cats can indeed form strong social bonds with humans.
For years now, lead author Charlotte de Mouzon and her team at Paris Nanterre University’s Laboratory of Compared Ethology and Cognition have been studying the intricacies of cat-human relationships. Earlier this month, for instance, they published a study finding that cat owners—much like dog owners—tend to adopt a distinct voice when talking to their beloved felines, usually by increasing their pitch. This new research, published Monday in the journal Animal Cognition, looked at the cat side of these interactions.
The team managed to corral 16 cats to take part in their experiments, which largely took place inside the cats’ homes. The researchers set up three scenarios, all of which involved the cats listening to pre-recorded voices of either their owner or a female stranger. To establish a reliable baseline for their reactions, the cats listened to three identical voice recordings, then a distinct voice or tonal change for the fourth recording, then back to the original recording the fifth time. If the cat’s behavior changed in response to the fourth recording and changed back in response to the fifth recording, that would suggest the cat was able to distinguish between the voices.
In the first scenario, the cats listened to a stranger’s pre-recorded voice call them by their name, then their owner’s voice, then back to the stranger’s voice. Ten of the 16 cats had a noticeable increase in behaviors like moving their ears toward the voice, dilated pupils, or simply moving in general when they heard their owner’s voice—behaviors that were then dialed back down when the stranger’s voice returned.
In the second scenario, the cats listened to their owner utter sentences directed to other humans, then one recording where the owner was plainly talking to them. And in the third, they listened to a stranger doing the same. This time, when the cats heard their owners employ “cat talk,” the team saw a behavioral change in 10 of the 16 cats (these 10 included eight of the cats who reacted distinctly in the first experiment). But the behavior intensity of the cats stayed level when they heard from the strangers, even after the strangers switched to cat talk.
All in all, de Mouzon told Gizmodo, the findings suggest that cats really do have an ear for human language, but perhaps only from those that they’re already familiar with. “What we found is that cats can discriminate between speech that is specifically addressed just to them by their owner from their speech addressed to other humans,” she said in a phone call.
The results were a bit surprising for de Mouzon and her team. Some previous research has indicated that dogs, too, can identify and respond to “doggy talk,” even when it’s uttered by strangers. And they predicted that the same would be true for the cats in their study, which didn’t turn out to happen. This difference could be a sign that the typical pet cat simply isn’t exposed to as many new people as the typical dog is. So it’s possible that cats with more human experience outside the home would recognize and respond differently to cat talk from strangers, the researchers argue.
It’s always a challenge to interpret findings from studies of animal behavior, not the least because scientists can’t ask animals what they’re thinking. And this study in particular has a relatively small sample size. But de Mouzon feels that their experimental design, which has been used to study how infants and other animals perceive the world, does allow for solid conclusions to be drawn. And while this study alone doesn’t prove that cats do form a unique social relationship with their humans, it’s not the only piece of research suggesting that to be the case, she notes.
“It’s further evidence showing that there is attachment between cats and humans. And I think that’s important to keep in mind, because for decades, we have been thinking that cats are very independent creatures, that they just want food and shelter, and that they don’t care about humans,” she said. “The fact that they show a special reaction to a special way we talk to them means, I think, that we are something more just than a food provider in their world.”
De Mouzon plans to continue studying how cats and humans interact. She’s already started to conduct more research into different areas of communication beyond the vocal, such as visual and tactile (touching) cues between owners and their cats.