Cats would know the difference between words directed at them and words directed at another person. It is true that our tone is not the same depending on who we are talking to. We all have in mind the intonation that some of our loved ones take when talking to a baby or a child. They will articulate a lot, repeat their words or vary their tone excessively. It’s kind of the same with pets, including cats. But do they perceive these differences?
Ethologists from the University of Paris Nanterre have investigated this question. Not only on the distinction between words spoken to the cat or another adult, but also on the distinction between a speech given by the cat’s owner or a stranger. Their findings were published in the journal Pet cognition.
Seeing cats react to different voices
For their various tests, the ethologists recruited 16 adult cats. They were all indoor cats living in small studios with their owners.
In the experiment, the goal was to assess the intensity of cat behavior in response to different recordings. To avoid behavioral changes due to stress in an unfamiliar environment, the ethologists conducted the experiment at the owner’s home.
These cats were tested on 3 sets of 5 audio recordings. Each aimed to observe their response to a particular parameter.
Series 1 focused on cats’ response to their owner’s voice compared to that of a stranger.
Series 2 focused on the response of cats to their owner uttering either a sentence directed at them or a sentence directed at a person.
Series 3 focused on cats’ reaction to a stranger who uttered either a sentence directed at them or a sentence directed at a person.
When the researchers listened to these different series of audio recordings, the researchers watched the cats’ reactions. But how to assess the intensity of their behavior? This is where the behavioral score comes into play.
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A behavioral score to assess the intensity of their response
To determine that, 14 behaviors were taken into accountincluding rest, movement of the ears or movement.
The duration of each behavior was evaluated during the 10 seconds before and the 10 seconds after the playback of the recording. Then, the difference between these two durations for each behavior was calculated. The goal ? Add all the differences together to get behavior score.
In fact, this difference in duration clearly reflects the intensity of the cat’s reaction. For example, if the cat scratched before the playback of the recording and continued afterwards – therefore having an identical behavior – the score was zero. On the other hand, if he rested and then started meowing after reading, the behavior score was higher.
Each series consisted of 5 recordings. In the first set, records 1, 2, 3 and 5 were of an unknown person calling the cat. In record 4, this time it was the owner who called his cat.
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Cats can distinguish our voice from a stranger’s
After reading the various recordings, the ethologists were able to estimate behavioral scores. Results: an average behavior score of 14.08 for record 1 to a score of 9.44 for record 3. And a score of 11.41 for record 4. At first glance, the response in the owner’s voice appears to be less intense than in the first recording with the stranger’s voice. However, to interpret these numbers, we must take into account ” habituation-dishabituation paradigm “.
When recordings 1 to 3 are identical, the cats end up getting used to the stranger’s voice. They then became unaccustomed to listening to their owner’s voice. This resulted in an increase in the behavioral score between recording 3 and 4. The crucial thing is to observe the intensity of the response between these two recordings. This peak in response therefore suggests that cats can distinguish their owner’s voice from that of a stranger.
The ethologists followed the same process for the second series. They observed an increase when the cats heard their owner’s voice speaking to them compared to previous recordings where he was speaking to another person.
Cats could therefore distinguish words addressed to them from words addressed to a human.
On the other hand, it is a surprise for the third series. In fact, the cats did not show any particular reactions when they listened to recording 4, where the stranger spoke to them. This suggests that cats will not distinguish words directed at them from those directed at a human when spoken by a stranger.
Cats would get used to our voice
These results would show that it is the habit that would make it possible to develop a special communication between the human and the cat.
The hypothesis put forward by the ethologists in this study would be that cats could distinguish our voice from the voice of strangers thanks to a certain confidentiality. In fact, they could detect a vocal difference between a stranger’s voice and his master’s.
It also works the other way around. Previous studies suggest that cats may have evolved specific vocalizations to address people.
For example, domestic cat vocalizations would be different from feral cats, with higher frequencies for domestic cats.
Another study also found that cats purred at a higher frequency when they asked humans for food—a subtlety that owners understand.
The fact that cats respond more strongly when spoken to provides additional information about this mutual relationship.
Of course, this study was done on a small sample, so this will require further research, with more diverse cats, including more socialized and used to interacting with strangers.
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