As any cat owner will tell you, talking to your cat is totally normal. And even though feline friends may seem indifferent to the adoring chatter, a new study in Animal Cognition suggests they really are listening.
Researchers in France subjected house cats to recordings of their owner or a stranger saying various phrases in cat- or human-directed speech. Much like baby talk, cat-directed speech is typically higher pitched and may have short, repetitive phrases. The team found that felines reacted distinctively to their owner speaking in cat-directed speech—but not to their owner speaking in adult tones or to a stranger using either adult- or cat-directed speech.
Previous research had shown similar findings in dogs, but much less is known when it comes to cats. “There are still some people who consider cats independent—that you cannot have a real relationship with cats,” says lead study author Charlotte de Mouzon, an ethologist and cat behaviorist then at the University of Paris Nanterre. Some people might be embarrassed about using a special tone for cats, she says, but this research shows “people shouldn’t be ashamed.”
De Mouzon and her team recorded 16 cat owners uttering phrases such as “Do you want to play?” or “Do you want a treat?” in cat- and human-directed speech. The researchers then filmed each cat before, during and after playing it a series of recordings of its owner and other owners’ speech. The researchers used software to rate the magnitude of the cats’ reactions to a speech sound.
“Although cats have a reputation for ignoring their owners, a growing body of research indicates that cats pay close attention to humans,” says Kristyn Vitale, a cat behavior scientist at Unity College in Maine, who was not involved in the study. “Cats can very much learn that specific vocalizations have certain meanings,” Vitale says. She notes that the study was small and that future work could expand the research to other cat populations.
Even if cats understand what we’re saying, de Mouzon says, “they have a right to choose if they don’t want to interact.”