Human language

Your cat knows when you use your “Cat Talk” voice

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New research suggests that cats can distinguish their owner’s voice from that of a stranger, while also being able to identify when their owner is speaking to them specifically. The findings are the latest to indicate that cats can indeed form strong social bonds with humans.

For years, lead author Charlotte de Mouzon and her team at the Comparative Ethology and Cognition Laboratory at Paris Nanterre University have been studying the intricacies of cat-human relationships. Earlier this month, for example, they published a study found that cat owners, much like dog owners, tend to adopt a distinct voice when talking to their beloved felines, usually raising their pitch. This new to researchpublished Monday in the journal Animal Cognition, looked at the feline side of these interactions.

The team managed to round up 16 cats to participate in their experiments, which largely took place inside the cats’ homes. The researchers set up three scenarios, all of which involved the cats listening to the pre-recorded voices of their owner or a stranger. To establish a reliable baseline for their reactions, the cats listened to three identical voice recordings, then a distinct voice or pitch change for the fourth recording, then back to the original recording the fifth time. If the cat’s behavior changed in response to the fourth recording and returned in response to the fifth recording, this would suggest that the cat was able to distinguish voices.

In the first scenario, the cats listened to a pre-recorded voice of a stranger calling them by name, then their owner’s voice, then the stranger’s voice again. Ten of the 16 cats had a noticeable increase in behaviors like moving their ears towards the voice, dilating the pupils, or just generally moving when they heard their owner’s voice – behaviors that were later reduced when the voice of the owner was heard. stranger came back.

One of the volunteer cats.

One of the volunteer cats.
Photo: Charlotte de Mouzon.

In the second scenario, the cats listened to their owner speak phrases addressed to other humans, then a recording where the owner spoke to them clearly. And in the third, they listened to a stranger do the same. This time, when the cats heard their owners use “cat talk”, the team saw a change in behavior in 10 of the 16 cats (these 10 included eight of the cats that reacted distinctly in the first experiment). But the intensity of the cats’ behavior remained stable when they heard about the strangers, even after the strangers switched to the cat.

Overall, de Mouzon told Gizmodo, the results suggest that cats do have an ear for human language, but perhaps only those they already know. “What we’ve found is that cats can distinguish between speech directed specifically at them by their owner and speech directed at other humans,” she said on a call. telephone.

The results were a bit surprising for de Mouzon and his team. Some previous research has noted that dogs, too, can identify and respond to “dog talk”, even when spoken by strangers. And they predicted the same would happen to the cats in their study, which didn’t happen. This difference could be a sign that the typical pet cat just isn’t exposed to as many new people as the typical dog. It is therefore possible that cats with more human experience outside the home recognize and react differently to feline conversations from strangers, say the researchers.

It’s always a challenge to interpret the results of animal behavior studies, not least because scientists can’t ask animals what they think. And this particular study has a relatively small sample size. But de Mouzon believes their experimental design, which has been used to study how infants and other animals perceive the world, allows for strong conclusions to be drawn. And while this study alone doesn’t prove that cats form a unique social relationship with their humans, it’s not the only research to suggest this is the case, she notes.

“This is further evidence that there is a bond between cats and humans. And I think it’s important to keep that in mind because for decades we’ve thought of cats as creatures. very independent, that they just want food and shelter, and that they don’t care about humans,” she said. “The fact that they show a particular reaction to a particular way of their talking means, I think, that we are something more than just a provider of food in their world.”

From Mouzon plans to continue studying how cats and humans interact. She has already begun to conduct more research in different areas of communication beyond voice, such as visual and tactile (touch) cues between owners and their cats.