Cats would tell the difference between words directed at them and those 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 a bit the same with pets, including cats. But do they perceive these differences?
Ethologists from the University of Paris Nanterre have looked into this question. Not only on the distinction between words spoken towards the cat or another adult but also on the distinction between a speech delivered by the owner of the cat or a stranger. Their results were published in the journal Pet Cognition.
Watching 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 aim was to assess the intensity of cat behavior in response to different recordings. To avoid behavioral changes due to the stress of an unfamiliar environment, the ethologists conducted the experiment at the owner’s home.
These cats were tested on 3 series of 5 audio recordings. Each aimed to observe their reaction to a specific parameter.
Series 1 focused on reaction of cats to the voice of their owner compared to that of a stranger.
Series 2 focused on the reaction of cats to their owner who uttered either a sentence addressed to them or a sentence addressed to a person.
Series 3 focused on the reaction of cats to a stranger who uttered either a sentence addressed to them or a sentence addressed to a person.
Listening to these different series of audios, the researchers watched the reactions of the cats. 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 it, 14 behaviors were taken into accountincluding rest, movement of the ears or moving.
The duration of each behavior was evaluated during the 10 seconds before and the 10 seconds after the playback of the recording. Then, it was the difference between these two durations for each behavior that was calculated. The goal ? Add all the differences together to get the behavior score.
Indeed, this difference in duration clearly reflects the intensity of the cat’s response. For example, if the cat scratched itself before the playback of the recording and continued afterwards – therefore had an identical behavior – the score was zero. On the other hand, if he rested and then began to meow after reading, the behavioral 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 calling her cat.
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Cats can distinguish our voice from those of strangers
After reading the various recordings, the ethologists were able to estimate behavioral scores. Results: an average behavioral 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, it would seem that the answer in the owner’s voice is less intense than in the first recording with the voice of the stranger. But to interpret these figures, we must take into account the “ habituation-dishabituation paradigm “.
Indeed, recordings 1 to 3 being identical, the cats end up getting used to the voice of the stranger. They then grew unaccustomed to listening to their owner’s voice. This resulted in the increase in the behavioral score between recording 3 and 4. What matters is to observe the intensity of the response between these two recordings. This peak in response therefore suggests that cats can discriminate the voice of their owner from that of a stranger.
The ethologists followed the same process for the second series. They observed a spike in response 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 those 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 listening to recording 4 where the stranger was talking to them. This suggests that cats would not distinguish words addressed to them from those addressed to 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 particular communication between the human and the cat.
The hypothesis put forward by the ethologists of this study would be that cats could distinguish our voice from those of strangers thanks to a certain familiarity. Indeed, they could detect a vocal difference between the voice of a stranger and that of his master.
It also works in reverse. Previous studies indicate that cats may have developed specific vocalizations to address humans.
For example, the vocalizations of pet cats would be different from those of wild cats, with higher frequencies for pet cats.
Another study also showed that cats purred at a higher frequency when asking humans for food – a subtlety understood by owners.
The fact that cats react more strongly when spoken to provides further information about this reciprocal 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 accustomed to interacting with strangers.
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