Like many who share their home with a cat, I often talk to the miniature predator sleeping on my pillow. Most of the time, I ask Ophelia if she wants food or hugs. I know she hears me – her oversized ears spin like hairy satellite dishes in my direction as soon as I open my mouth. What’s less clear is whether she knows I’m talking to her.
A new study in animal cognition shows that she probably does.
Charlotte de Mouzon, cat lover and ethologist, a scientist who studies animal behavior, has dedicated her career to understanding the cat-human bond from the cat’s perspective.
De Mouzon, who works for the EthoCat pet services company in Bordeaux, France, designed a series of experiments to test how pet cats of different breeds
reacted to hearing recordings of their owners and strangers talking to them. (What do cats think of us? You might be surprised.)
When they heard a familiar voice, the felines reacted in subtle but distinct ways, such as wagging their tails, twirling their ears and freezing during grooming. They showed no such response when the owners spoke to other people or to strangers’ voices. The study is among the first to show that cats can recognize and respond to their owners’ voices.
“There is really a special communication that develops between each owner and their cat,” explains de Mouzon, who is also a researcher at the University of Paris Nanterre.
“The fact that they are mindful of the different ways we talk to them shows how important we are to them in addition to feeding them or giving them shelter.”
A city-paw of cat research
Beyond our choice of words, we express ourselves using inflection, tone, and pitch. For example, we may use different words and phrases around friends than we do around our bosses. And then there are the baby talks.
Researchers call it infant-directed speech, and it typically consists of repetitive words spoken in a higher pitch and simpler syntax than adult speech. Babies love it too – studies show that babies learn new words and remember them better when adults use child-directed speech.
It’s no surprise, then, that millions of people who consider their pets to be “furbabies” also use such altered speech patterns when addressing their pets. (Learn surprising things you never knew about your cat.)
While researchers have long known that babies and dogs respond positively to this pet-led talk, they focused less on cats in their experiments.
Jennifer Vonk, a comparative psychologist at Oakland University in Michigan, says this may be because, unlike dogs, cats are not easy to train and are often fearful in new situations, two factors that make experiments more difficult. Another obstacle may be the perception that cats are less social than other pets, Vonk says.
Despite this reputation for being aloof and indifferent, cats form deep bonds with humans, often preferring their company over other rewards, such as food, according to recent studies.
Can you hear me now?
Because speech is an important form of communication for humans, de Mouzon wanted to know if cats know when their owners are talking to them and if they react differently to strangers.
De Mouzon therefore recruited 16 cat owners in Bordeaux to take part in the experiment. She first recorded the owners saying specific phrases, such as “Do you want to play?”, “Do you want a treat?” and “See you later”. Their voices were recorded twice: once as if they were talking to their cat, and once as if they were talking to a person.
Recordings in hand, De Mouzon conducted the next stage of experiments in cat homes, where the animals were comfortable and responded naturally. In each house, she played audio recordings of the cat’s owner and strangers speaking the same phrases, while videotaping the cat’s responses.
Cats responded when they heard their owners use cat-directed speech, but not human-to-human speech. They also showed no response when they heard a stranger’s voice, be it a cat or an adult. This indicated that the cats could recognize when their owners were talking to them, de Mouzon said.
A stronger bond
“It’s really important,” says Marsha Reijgwart, an ethologist at Purr Doctors, an education research center in the Netherlands, who was not involved in the study.
“It’s an indication that cats can really distinguish that the sound they hear is relevant to them.”
Esther Bouma, Reijgwart’s collaborator at Purr Doctors, agrees, though she cautions that the work doesn’t show cats know what we’re saying. She also says that the small sample size and relative uniformity of cats and their owners can make it difficult to generalize to all cat-human relationships. (Find out how cats made their way into our hearts.)
But de Mouzon said his research should give cat owners confidence that their pets are likely listening to them.
“Even knowing cats aren’t human babies,” she says, “we can still talk to them in a way that they’re sensitive to and that can strengthen our bond.”