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Cats Recognize and Respond to Our Voices

Photo credit: Maria Teneva via Unsplash.

Do cats care whether we talk to them or not? In a recent study, animal cognition experts found that cats may change their behavior when their “humans” are talking in a tone directed to them. But they don’t react the same way to a stranger who is talking that way or when the voice is directed elsewhere. Charlotte de Mouzon and colleagues from Université Paris Nanterre (Nanterre, France) investigated the way 16 cats reacted to “pre-recorded voices from both their owner and that of a stranger when saying phrases in cat-directed and human adult-directed tones.” With adult-directed tones, no “endearing” kitty talk is used. It might not be clear who the intended recipient of the message is, apart from what is being said:

The authors investigated three conditions, with the first condition changing the voice of the speaker from a stranger’s voice to the cat’s owner. The second and third conditions changed the tone used (cat-directed or adult-directed) for the cat’s owner or a stranger’s voice, respectively. The authors recorded and rated the behavior intensity of cats reacting to the audio, checking for behaviors such as resting, ear moving, pupil dilation, and tail moving, amongst others.


So What Happened?

Ten of the 16 cats decreased their behavior intensity when they heard three audio clips of a stranger calling them by name. But once they heard their owner’s voice, the cats turned their ears to the speakers and moved around the room more — and their pupils dilated. Not surprisingly, the researchers concluded that the cats recognized the voices of people they knew.

The second test involved ten cats, eight of which had been in the first test. They “decreased their behavior” (quit paying much attention) when their owners were speaking in an adult-directed tone. But they “significantly increased their behavior” (started paying more attention) when they heard that same owner speaking in the cat-directed tone. The cats — not surprisingly — did not change their behavior when a stranger’s voice was played in either tone. Conclusions?:

The authors suggest that their findings bring a new dimension to cat-human relationships, with cat communication potentially relying on experience of the speaker’s voice. They conclude that one-to-one relationships are important for cats and humans to form strong bonds.


One difficulty we face when trying to determine what a cat “can” or “can’t” understand is that the cat handles information differently from the dog — and it is natural for us to compare cats with dogs, especially in matters like intelligence or capacity for relationship.

A Small Lone Predator

The dog, in a natural state, hunts with other dogs. Communication is essential for success. The cat, by contrast, is a small lone predator who operates by stealth. He takes great care to conceal any information as to his presence until his prey is firmly in his power. In fact, many domestic cats will hide and conceal symptoms of their own pain and sickness because they are prey as well as predators. So determining what the cat actually knows is a more complex business than determining what a dog actually knows (for one thing, the dog may be much more anxious to tell you).

And it turns out that cats know more than many have supposed. For example, they know the names of other cats who live in the same household. But, of course, that’s information cats need.

For example, “FLUFFY! It’s time for your PILL!” is a piece of information that Fluffy’s housemate Tabby may understand quite well, in terms of its outcome (Fluffy is chased into the basement and cornered in the furnace room by a human clutching a pill). But Tabby, characteristically, stays well away from the whole business. Thus we would need artful research methods to show that Tabby does in fact know whether a particular “cat talk” communication was or was not directed at him and whether he knows what it means.

Read the rest at Mind Matters News, published by Discovery Institute’s Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.



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