John Caskey, an avid reader of this blog, shared with us the article, “Your Cats Can Tell When You’re Speaking to Them,” which appeared in the January 2023 issue of Scientific American.
The author, Tanya Lewis, reported on a study published in Animal Cognition that found cats, like dogs, can discriminate speech addressed to them when spoken by their owners. When hearing the same sentences uttered by strangers, however, cats did not appear to discriminate between adult-directed speech (ADS) and cat-directed speech (CDS).
According to Ms. Lewis, CDS is like babytalk, in that it is typically higher pitched and may have short, repetitive phrases.
Researchers Charlotte de Mouzon, Marine Gonthier, and Gérard Leboucher, at the University of Paris Nanterre, recorded 16 cat owners uttering phrases such as, “Do you want a treat?” in ADS and CDS. They filmed each cat before, during, and after playing the recordings of the owners’ and others’ speech. Then they used software to rate the cats’ reactions.
The researchers concluded that felines “reacted distinctively to their owners speaking in CDS, but not to their owners speaking in adult tones or to a stranger using adult tones or to a stranger using either adult- or cat-directed speech.”
Previous research has shown similar findings in dogs. “There are still some people who consider cats independent—that you cannot have a real relationship with cats,” said lead study author Charlotte de Mouzon, an ethologist and cat behaviorist.
Kristyn Vitale, a cat behavior scientist a Unity College in Maine, agrees.
“Although cats have a reputation for ignoring their owners, a growing body of research indicates that cats pay close attention to humans,” she said. “Cats can very much learn that specific vocalizations have certain meanings.” She noted that the study by de Mouzon et al. was small and that future work could expand the research.
The findings mirror those presented in the Netflix documentary Inside the Mind of a Cat, produced by Martin Shore and released on August 25, 2022.
In it, Ms. Vitale demonstrated that cats look to their owners for emotional advice. She attached paper streamers to a desk fan as a social referencing test. When she turned the fan on and the streamers fluttered, her cat Carl modeled his own response to her reaction.
When she acted frightened, Carl tried to hide from the fan, but when she acted happy, he was comfortable and confident. She concluded that 79% of cats look to their owners for clues on how to react to certain phenomena.
Inside the Mind of a Cat also reported that cats may exhibit cultural differences, depending on where they’ve been raised.
Dr. Saho Takagi at the University of Kyoto, noticed that cats from Japan appear less comfortable in unfamiliar environments than cats from the United States. She attributes this to the fact that cats in Japan are primarily kept indoors and rarely encounter strangers. After running these same experiments with Dr. Vitale, they concluded that these differences could be handed down through generations.
So, John, it seems that cats can indeed tell when you’re speaking to them.
Science simply has confirmed what feline aficionados have known for millennia. Communicating with cats is purr-fectly understandable.
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3 thoughts on “Purr-fectly Understandable”
I’m not a cat-owner (or ownee, perhaps?), but I can well imagine they are attuned to their humans’ behaviour and speech.
Very interesting. I’m sure many of your readers are experimenting with their own cats today. I’m not a cat lover, but I can appreciate that many people love their cats and dogs. Thanks for the interesting reads.
As a cat lover, I can attest that my two fur babies, Mickey and Minnie definitely react to CDS! Most times they even Meow back!