Your Cat Might Not Be Ignoring You When You Speak

Cats have a reputation for being aloof, but a new study has found that their relationships with their owners may be stronger than we thought.

Three kittens sit on a pillow in a row, one of which looks very directly at the camera.
Cats are often seen as aloof. But in a new study, they were not ignoring their owners, but instead “their reactions were very subtle,” the lead author of the study said.Credit…David W Cerny/Reuters

Every cat owner has a story to tell of being blanked by their cat: We call to our cat, it turns away, and some of us might be left wondering why we didn’t get a dog. But your cat may be listening after all. More than that, it cares more than you may think.

A study by French researchers that was published last month in the journal Animal Cognition found that not only do cats react to what scientists call cat-directed speech — a high-pitched voice similar to how we talk to babies — they react to who is doing the talking.

“We found that when cats heard their owners using a high-pitched voice, they reacted more than when they heard their owner speaking normally to another human adult,” said Charlotte de Mouzon, an author of the study and cat behavior expert at the Université Paris Nanterre. “But what was very surprising in our results was that it actually didn’t work when it came from a stranger’s voice.”

Unlike with dogs, cat behavior is difficult to study, which is part of why humans understand them less. Cats are often so stressed by being in a lab that meaningful behavioral observations become impossible. And forget about trying to get a cat to sit still for an M.R.I. scan to study its brain function.

So the researchers for the latest study went to the cats’ homes and played recordings of different types of speech and different speakers. At first, Dr. de Mouzon and her team were worried that the cats weren’t reacting at all. But then they studied film recordings of the encounters. “Their reactions were very subtle,” Dr. de Mouzon said. “It could be just moving an ear or turning the head towards the speaker or even freezing what they were doing.”

In a few cases, the cats in the study would approach the speaker playing a voice and meow. “In the end, we had really clear gains in the cat’s attention when the owner was using cat-directed speech,” Dr. de Mouzon said.

Three views arrayed horizontally of a white-and-gray cat, top, and a dark gray cat with a dark red fluffy thing next to it at bottom.
Behavioral changes before (a), during (b) and after (c) the stimulus onset. The stimulus onset interrupted a grooming session with the top cat and caused the lower cat’s pupils to dilate and orient its head toward the speaker.Credit…Charlotte de Mouzon

The findings showed that “cats are paying close attention to their caretakers, down to not only what they are saying, but how they are saying it,” said Kristyn Vitale, an assistant professor of animal health and behavior at Unity College in Maine who was not involved in the new study.

The new study complements Dr. Vitale’s own research into relationships between a cat and its owner. This relationship is so important, Dr. Vitale’s research has found, that it replicates the connection between a kitten and its mother. “It is possible that attachment behaviors originally intended for interactions with their mother have now been modified for interactions with their new caretakers, humans.”

Unlike dogs, “most cats actually prefer human interaction over other rewards like food or toys,” Dr. Vitale said.

Genetics may also play a role in why dogs are easier to study and are assumed to be friendlier.

“Dogs were artificially selected hundreds or thousands of years ago based precisely on their capacity to be trained, whether as sheepdogs, hunting dogs or something else,” Sarah Jeannin, a dog behavior expert at the Université Paris Nanterre who was not involved in the new study.

Dr. Jeannin disputed the stereotype that dogs are closer to humans than cats. “People say that dogs are a man’s best friend, that you can trust them and that they are very loyal. But we don’t know what dogs actually think,” she said. “It’s really just projection by us that dogs are in love with us.”

“For years, scientists didn’t ask the right questions about cats,” Dr. de Mouzon said. Now, those who are convinced of the perfidy of cats won’t like the answers that are emerging.

Cats don’t hate us after all, Dr. Vitale said, adding that “a growing body of work supports the idea that social interaction with humans is key in the life of a cat.”

According to Dr. de Mouzon, just because cats react in subtle ways doesn’t mean they are aloof.

“Cats don’t do what you expect them to do. But if cats don’t come when we call them, it may be because they’re busy doing something else, or they are resting,” she said. “People have these kinds of expectations because when you call a dog, the dog will come. But if you call a human when they are having a nap at the other end of the house, would you go?”

A wide-eyed cat looks attentively at someone or something off-camera, standing on a very large scratching post/play structure with a feathery toy in front of it.
An unsubtle, attentive test subject in the study.Credit…Charlotte de Mouzon

New York Times – November 13, 2022

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