If your cat isn’t responding to your calls of adoration, you might want to consider whether they are just ignoring you.
In a series of experiments on 16 house cats, researchers have shown feline pets know their owner’s voice. They also behave differently when their owners are talking to them – as opposed to another person.
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.
Higher-pitched, short utterances with repetitive sounds are common features of human speech when directed at infants or pets. Dogs, for instance, have been shown to sense both tone and meaning in their owner’s voice.
In fact, experiments in 2017 and 2018 found that when a pet owner uses ‘dog talk’, like ‘Who’s a good boy?’, it draws the attention and affection of their dog better than speech meant for other humans.
Past research also suggests humans use a specific register to speak to their cats – introducing more sensual ‘breathy’ qualities to signal friendliness and closeness. (Though it’s not clear whether cats care for it at all.)
But the current experiments are the first to explore how cats respond to cat-directed speech versus human-directed speech.
Similar to dogs, researchers found cats can discriminate between speech directed at other humans and speech specifically addressed to them.
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.
The findings suggest adult house cats that aren’t used to strangers have only learned to decipher the nuances of their owner’s speech. The closeness of a cat-human relationship, in other words, might be based on experience rather than an innate preference for friendly, intimate qualities in a human voice.
Future experiments should compare whether more socialised cats have learned to better respond to the speech of strangers. Cats in cat cafes, for instance, appear to be highly tuned to human speech and have learned not only their own names but the names of other cats around them.
The house cats in the current study, on the other hand, all lived in studio apartments and most had just one owner.
To reduce stress to unknown elements, experiments were conducted within each cat’s apartment. Their owner was also always in the room, although they sat silently and did not interact with the cat throughout the trial.
The experimenter, who the cat had met before, would then play a series of audio recordings with 30 seconds break in between. These recordings were previously taped during natural interactions between the cat and its owner, including the calling of the cat’s name.
Afterwards, the pet owner recorded the same words they said to their cat in a tone meant for another human. Finally, a stranger was taped copying the owner’s words and tone in all the scenarios.
When the final audio was played to a house cat, the pet’s behaviour only changed when the owner’s voice spoke in a cat-directed way. The cat, for instance, might stop grooming itself to meow back or look towards the sound. Other times, a cat’s response was less obvious, their ears quietly turning to the sound of their owner’s voice while looking otherwise uninterested.
When a stranger’s voice was heard, or their owner’s voice sounded as though it was talking to another human, the cat’s behaviour went unchanged.
The study is based on only a small number of pets, all of whom shared similar lifestyles, but the authors say their findings are a good start to understanding how our pets might understand us.
“[O]ur results highlight the importance of one-to-one relationships for indoor companion cats, who do not seem to generalise the communication developed with one human to all human interlocutors,” the authors write.
The study has been published in Animal Cognition.