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Researchers: Cats Do Recognize and Respond To Our Voices

If you are a cat’s human friend, he cares when you talk to him. Whether he will, or even can, do what you want is a separate question
Two cats hide under the blanket. Outside, the winter snow. The concept of home comfort, security, warmth

Do cats care whether we talk to them or not? In a recent study, animal cognition experts found that cats may change their behavior when their “humans” are talking in a tone directed to them. But they don’t react the same way to a stranger who is talking that way or when the voice is directed elsewhere. Charlotte de Mouzon and colleagues from Université Paris Nanterre (Nanterre, France) investigated the way 16 cats reacted to “pre-recorded voices from both their owner and that of a stranger when saying phrases in cat-directed and human adult-directed tones.” With adult-directed tones, no “endearing” kitty talk is used. It might not be clear who the intended recipient of the message is, apart from what is being said:

The authors investigated three conditions, with the first condition changing the voice of the speaker from a stranger’s voice to the cat’s owner. The second and third conditions changed the tone used (cat-directed or adult-directed) for the cat’s owner or a stranger’s voice, respectively. The authors recorded and rated the behavior intensity of cats reacting to the audio, checking for behaviors such as resting, ear moving, pupil dilation, and tail moving, amongst others.

Springer, “Cats distinguish between speech directed at them and humans” at Phys.org (October 24, 2022) The paper requires a fee or subscription.

So what happened? Ten of the 16 cats decreased their behavior intensity when they heard three audio clips of a stranger calling them by name. But once they heard their owner’s voice, the cats turned their ears to the speakers and moved around the room more — and their pupils dilated. Not surprisingly, the researchers concluded that the cats recognized the voices of people they knew.

The second test involved ten cats, eight of which had been in the first test. They “decreased their behavior” (quit paying much attention) when their owners were speaking in an adult-directed tone. But they “significantly increased their behavior” (started paying more attention) when they heard that same owner speaking in the cat-directed tone. The cats — not surprisingly — did not change their behavior when a stranger’s voice was played in either tone. Conclusions?:

The authors suggest that their findings bring a new dimension to cat-human relationships, with cat communication potentially relying on experience of the speaker’s voice. They conclude that one-to-one relationships are important for cats and humans to form strong bonds.

Springer, “Cats distinguish between speech directed at them and humans” at Phys.org (October 24, 2022)

One difficulty we face when trying to determine what a cat “can” or “can’t” understand is that the cat handles information differently from the dog — and it is natural for us to compare cats with dogs, especially in matters like intelligence or capacity for relationship.

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The dog, in a natural state, hunts with other dogs. Communication is essential for success. The cat, by contrast, is a small lone predator who operates by stealth. He takes great care to conceal any information as to his presence until his prey is firmly in his power. In fact, many domestic cats will hide and conceal symptoms of their own pain and sickness because they are prey as well as predators. So determining what the cat actually knows is a more complex business than determining what a dog actually knows (for one thing, the dog may be much more anxious to tell you).

And it turns out that cats know more than many have supposed. For example, they know the names of other cats who live in the same household. But, of course, that’s information cats need.

For example, “FLUFFY! It’s time for your PILL!” is a piece of information that Fluffy’s housemate Tabby may understand quite well, in terms of its outcome (Fluffy is chased into the basement and cornered in the furnace room by a human clutching a pill). But Tabby, characteristically, stays well away from the whole business. Thus we would need artful research methods to show that Tabby does in fact know whether a particular “cat talk” communication was or was not directed at him and whether he knows what it means.

But it is not in Tabby’s nature to go to any trouble to reveal that he knows any of this, any more than it would be in his nature to allow small rodents to know that he is waiting for them…

From the media discussing this study: At ScienceAlert,

At the sound of a familiar voice, the cats in the study often froze, tails flicking, eyes blinking, or ears twitching – but only when the words were spoken in a register reserved for a cutie pie fluff ball with li’l bitty paws and a big old tum-tum.

If the owner used their typical human voice to utter the same sentence, the cats seemed to sense the speech wasn’t directed at them.

Carly Cassella, “Cats Do Hear You When You’re Talking to Them Sweetly (They Just Don’t Care)” at ScienceAlert (October 25, 2022)

Indeed. The cat cannot not analyze human language for its abstract meaning. He infers meaning from the human’s emotional register and his memory of past experiences with certain human sounds. For example, he knows what “Tabby, quit scratching the couch!” means. It means Tabby must wait till the human can’t hear him.

But this was true only when the sentences were spoken by a cat’s owner. When a stranger spoke in the same, cat-directed ways, the pet did not show much interest. They simply went about their business as usual.

Carly Cassella, “Cats Do Hear You When You’re Talking to Them Sweetly (They Just Don’t Care)” at ScienceAlert (October 25, 2022)

That makes sense too. What difference does it make to the cat what a stranger means unless he either moves in or presents an advantage or a threat of some sort?

At National Geographic: “Beyond our choice of words, we express ourselves using inflection, tone, and pitch. For instance, we might use different words and phrases around friends than we do talking to our bosses.”

For sure. That’s exactly the sort of thing that a cat is well-adapted to listen for. He needs to know, how will your feelings affect him?

At Smithsonian Magazine: “New research provides evidence cats see their person as ‘more than just a food provider’”.

Of course they do. The typical domestic cat goes from the care of his mom to the care of human friends. So when he has any problems that he can’t solve on his own, he comes looking for his human friends. But he hasn’t changed; he has just adapted.

If you scream at him because he killed the pet bird or the cute chipmunk outside, there is no chance whatever that he understands your position. To him, human screams are just an occasional dangerous and confusing noise.

An interesting point is raised at Gizmodo:

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.

Ed Cara, “Your Cat Knows When You’re Using Your ‘Cat Talk’ Voice” at Gizmodo (October 24, 2022)

Another possibility is that the cat — due to the way he would normally protect and feed himself — is simply more discriminating than the dog is about what information he reveals, conceals, or even tries to acquire. He walks softly through life, with sharp, retractable claws, and learns what he needs to know.

We are only beginning to try to understand our animal companions using these fascinating tests.

You may also wish to read: Why cats can remember other cats’ names. University of Kyoto scientists found that they can indeed remember, provided they live in the same household. The researchers are unsure exactly how cats remember other cats’ names. But that may not be a great mystery if we keep in mind what is involved.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Researchers: Cats Do Recognize and Respond To Our Voices