You talkin' to me? Cats can tell when they are being spoken to

There's no need to watch what you say but beware how you say it, your cat might be listening

Jessica Predko
21st November 2022
Image credit: Unsplash
For over 10,000 years, cats have shared our homes and been involved in our ecosystems. This has definitely given cats more than enough time to develop social-cognitive abilities with humans!

Despite such a long period of interaction between cats and humans, very little research has been conducted on how cats respond to the human voice.

However, a new study in Animal Cognition conducted by De Mouzon et al., 2022 aimed to investigate whether pet cats are more responsive to cat directed speech (CDS) or adult directed speech (ADS). Secondly, they investigated whether cats’ responses to human voices differed if elicited by a stranger.

CDS refers to a special speech type people appear to use when addressing a cat, characterized with hyper articulation, more repetitions and higher pitch.

16 cats, whose owners were veterinary students, completed the study in their own homes, to ensure the cats behaviour was not impacted by an unfamiliar environment. The cat’s owner and a stranger recorded themselves saying phrase, such as, “Do you want a treat?” and “See you soon” twice. Once in CDS and once in ADS.

Cats can cats can distinguish CDS from ADS in their owners, but not in stranger’s voice

When the audio recordings was of the owner, the cats behaviour analysis showed responses of pivoting their ears and swishing their tails, among other positive behaviour when spoke in CDS. Whereas, these behaviours were not observed in the owner’s ADS recording, or on either CDS or ADS from the stranger’s recordings. This suggests that pet cats can distinguish CDS from ADS in their owners, but not in stranger’s voices.

Previous studies in dogs by Jeannin et al., 2017 showed dogs could distinguish dog directed speech from ADS when spoken by a stranger. So the question is, why can’t cats distinguish CDS from ADS in strangers? Well, it is hypothesised that dogs are more sociable and have more exposure to strangers than cats. Maybe, if cats were more exposed to strangers, they may one day develop a similar ability.

The study provides good evidence that your cat is listening

Even though these results should be translated with caution, due to the small sample size and the narrow demographic of veterinary student owners, De Mouzon is confident that this study is good evidence your cat is listening!

“Even knowing cats aren’t human babies, we can still talk to them in a way they’re sensitive to and that can reinforce our bond”.

Next steps could be increasing the sample size in a similar study and widening the demographic to include cat owners from all walks of life.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-022-01674-w

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