Any cat owner knows that the correct way to get their pet’s attention is to sing “here, kitty kitty”, rather than utter a flat “come here cat”. Now research suggests cats may routinely tune into their owner’s tone of voice to detect when they are talking to them, rather than to other humans.
Most people automatically adopt a higher-pitched, sing-song tone when speaking to animals and human infants. Although previous research has suggested that such “baby-talk” is more likely to capture dogs’ attention, less was known about how cats react to being spoken to in this way.
To investigate, Charlotte de Mouzon and colleagues from Paris Nanterre University observed how 16 cats responded to hearing pre-recorded sentences spoken by their owner or a stranger, by recording changes in their behaviour, such as moving their ears or tails, suddenly stopping what they were doing, or their pupils dilating – any of which could indicate that a sound had caught their attention.
They found that the cats were largely unresponsive to hearing a stranger’s voice calling their name, but when their owner did it, 10 of the 16 cats displayed a constellation of behaviours suggesting increased attentiveness. Cats also showed more signs of interest when they heard their owner speaking sentences in a tone usually used to address their cat – but not when a stranger used this tone, or when their owner spoke the same sentence as if addressing a fellow adult human.
The research, published in Animal Cognition, adds to mounting evidence that one-to-one relationships are important for cats and humans to form strong bonds. “For a long time it has been thought that cats are very independent creatures, only interested in [humans for] eating and shelter, but the fact that they react specifically to their owner, and not just anybody addressing them, supports the idea that they are attached,” said de Mouzon. “It brings further evidence to encourage humans to consider cats as sensitive and communicative individuals.”
Potentially, the relationship works both ways, as cats have previously been observed to purr differently when trying to solicit food from their owners, compared with, for example, when they are being stroked – and humans judged these “solicitation” purrs as more urgent. “The fact that, in return, cats show a greater reaction when their humans specifically address them brings a new dimension to previous considerations of this reciprocal relationship,” de Mouzon said.
Although it’s not entirely surprising that cats are more responsive to their owners’ voices, the fact that they appear to be filtering out insignificant information is interesting, said Roger Tabor, a biologist and author of 100 Ways to Understand Your Cat. “I’m sure a lot of human partners don’t hear what the other partner is saying a lot of the time because they’re focused on something which, for them, is more immediately significant. It’s interesting that cats are also filtering – although it’s not so strange because one thing has meaning, and the other has less meaning.”
Given these findings, de Mouzon said cat owners should not feel embarrassed about speaking to their pets in this way. “I also talk to my [two] cats as if they were children – and they do respond,” she said. “People may be shy about admitting this, but I think it can help to reinforce the bond between cats and their owners. They get that we are giving them attention.”