they sometimes deliberately choose to ignore us, study suggests

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While much research is devoted to the cognitive abilities and intelligence of dogs (Canis familiaris), very few are dedicated to pet cats (Felis catus). Often considered independent or unruly compared to dogs, cats nevertheless develop deep bonds with their owners. According to a small study published in the journal Pet Cognition, they would distinguish not only the voice of their masters from that of a stranger, but also when the latter are addressed particularly to them and not to someone else. One could then think that the man-cat relationship has its own “language”, but also, unfortunately, that felines sometimes choose to ignore us when they are aware that we are talking to them…

When addressing someone, we tend to change tone depending on the person or the subject of the request. Out of love and affection for them, it is common for us to cuddle our pets, even if it means speaking to them in the same way as to a child. If dogs often respond easily to their masters, or to a simple affectionate gesture, this is not necessarily the case with cats. Indeed, previous studies have proven that even if they recognize the voice of their masters, they sometimes tend to deliberately ignore them, at least when the object of the call does not interest them.

Their looks and indolent behavior when trying to attract their attention, according to the researchers, would result from an “incomplete” domestication, which arrived later than that of dogs. Some experts also believe that cats have “domesticated themselves”, probably in order to adapt to cohabitation with humans in order to obtain food and privileges.

On the other hand, in ethology, the notion of animal intelligence is becoming more and more in-depth, given the behaviors observed in pets — which sometimes exceed our expectations and above all our understanding. Given their “strong characters”, one could think in this sense that cats listen to their masters only because they want to and not because they have been trained.

This “indomitable” side probably explains the lack of studies dedicated to cats, their responses to experiments being probably difficult to analyze. The new study, led by researchers at the University of Paris Nanterre, involves only fewer than 20 cats, but already offers insight into the subtleties of human-cat relationships. While it has been demonstrated in particular that our cats can recognize our voice, less is known about how they react to it.

In the new study, the researchers put 16 cats through three different conditions where they had them listen to voice recordings. The first altered the speaker’s voice to sound like their owner’s. The second was to change the tone used by owners when addressing someone else (an adult) or the cat. And the third was to change the pitch of a stranger’s voice when talking to a human or the cat. The cats’ behavioral changes were then assessed based on their resting state changes, ear movements, pupil dilation and tail movements.

In the first condition, 10 of the cats tested showed a decrease in reaction to hearing three voice recordings of a stranger’s voice calling them by name. By listening to their owners’ voices however, their change in behavior and physical reactions increased significantly. These results indicate that cats quite easily distinguish the voice of their owners from that of a stranger.

When the cats were subjected to the second experimental condition, they showed a significant drop in interest when the tone of their owners indicated that the messages were not directed at them. On the other hand, there was a resurgence of interest when the tone indicated that the owners were speaking specifically to them. Moreover, they ignored strangers even when they changed their tone to address cats specifically.

However, it should be kept in mind that these results concern only 16 individuals, and therefore may not fully shed light on all the subtleties of the behavior of these felines. As a next step, the researchers are thinking of repeating the experiment by choosing cats that are more socialized and more accustomed to being around other people apart from their masters.

Source: Animal Cognition

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