Does your cat know your voice?

How do our cats recognize us (if they do!)? Most likely, they use multiple cues – our appearance, our scent, our mannerisms, and likely, our voices. Some scientists recently examined whether cats can recognize us by one cue alone – the sound of our voices calling their names (Saito & Shinozuka, 2013).

While this study came out in July of 2013, it was recently picked up by Reddit, and so it’s back in the headlines!!! The study has generated A LOT of attention, and some misleading (or just ridiculous) headlines, such as:

Note that most of these headlines play into the stereotype of cats as aloof, independent and well, just jerky (something I think most cat owners would argue is not exactly…errr…accurate). And then one headline actually has the opposite interpretation – cats aren’t that aloof after all! So what exactly did the researchers do and find? Do you agree with their conclusions? Or those of the media?

Twenty cats participated in the study. Each session had five trials. The experimenters played the sounds of three strangers calling a subject cat’s name in a manner similar to the owner, matching for sex, tone and other phonological elements (trials 1-3). Then they played a recording of the owner calling the cat’s name (trial 4), and lastly, played the sound of a final stranger calling to the cat (trial 5). The expectation was that cats would habituate (show less responding) to the sound of their name as the three strangers called their name, but if they could recognize their owner’s voice, they would show increased responding on that fourth trial.

Ear movements may be a sign your cat is paying attention to your voice.
Ear movements may be a sign your cat is paying attention to your voice.

The experimenters videotaped the cats during the presentation of the sounds, later coding for behaviors such as ear movement, pupil dilation and vocalization and magnitude of the cat’s response. Head and ear movements were the most common responses of cats to hearing their names called by their owners.

Fifteen of the 20 cats showed habituation to having their name called by three different strangers. Habituation is a decrease in responding to repeated presentation of a stimulus (Domjan, 2009). The five cats who did not habituate were dropped from the rest of the analysis. Results showed that cats who “habituated” were likely to show less responding at the third strangers call, and that their responding increased when they heard their owner’s voice. However, response did not decrease on the fifth trial, to the sound of the fourth strangers’ voice.

So are you convinced that cats recognize their owner’s voices? There are some potential issues with the study that leave me less than completely bowled over. A typical habituation experiment repeats the same stimulus until the subject (human or animal) stops (or significantly reduces) responding. Perhaps the effects could have been easier to find if the calls were not each from different people. In this experiment, since each trial had a different voice, there may have been some “dishabituation” on every trial due to the fact that every stimulus was actually different. Since 25% of the cats in the study did not habituate, it may have been more effective to increase the number of habituation trials before testing the cats.

The actual number of behaviors observed was very small – the cats showed an average of one or so behaviors in response to the third voice (indicating habituation) but only an average of around 1.5 behaviors in response to their owner. This was also less responding than on the first trial, which averaged two behavioral responses. While the difference between the responses on the third trial and responding to the owner’s voice was statistically significant, in that it showed a higher level of responding than expected by chance to the owner compared to the third stranger, I will let readers decide whether they feel this is a strong demonstration of owner recognition.

Given the low number of behaviors demonstrated by cats in general, the experiment could have also included a baseline condition to see the normal level of these behaviors in cats (ear twitching, head movement) in the absence of any auditory stimulus. Perhaps cats already perform these behaviors at around the same rate (1-2 behaviors) without having their name called.

Headturns were one of the more common behavioral responses of cats in the study.
Headturns were one of the more common behavioral responses of cats in the study.

Finally, I would suggest that there may be better or other measures of responding to human voices. Other studies have used approach (to speakers when a sound is projected) as a measure of response to auditory cues.

The authors concluded that the cats responded to their owner’s voice, although only through orienting behaviors (and not via vocalization or other body movements). They said this contrasted with dogs, because dogs understand social cues including pointing gestures and facial expressions. My main problems with this conclusion are that the experimenters didn’t examine either of those behaviors in this study, so it seems erroneous to include that in their conclusion; and researchers have already found that cats can use human points to find hidden food (Miklosi, Pongracz, Lakatos, Topal, & Csanyi, 2005). They then conclude that there are differences in the human-pet relationships of cats and dogs, and ground this in the framework of cats’ self-domestication.
The media conclusions are a bit concerning – the study did not examine facial recognition (“Cats showcase facial and voice recognition of their owners”), and “playing dumb as a form of survival” was not addressed, aside from noting that cats have not been domesticated to “take orders” from humans, unlike dogs. This demonstrates the importance of going to the source literature whenever possible (even if you’re reading my blog posts).

While this study is far from perfect, it does contribute to the current (and greatly lacking) area of study on cat-human relationships and social cognition in domesticated cats. I’d love to see more research on cat-human interactions, looking at other modalities of recognition and response. It does demonstrate some support that our voices are just one of the possible ways that our cats recognize and become attached to us.

References:

Domjan, M. P. (2009). Principles of learning and behavior. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Miklosi, A., Pongracz, P., Lakatos, G., Topal, J., & Csanyi, V. (2005). A comparative study of the use of visual communicative signals in interactions between dogs (Canis familiaris) and humans and cats (Felis catus) and humans. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 119(2), 179-186. doi: 10.1037/0735-7036.119.2.179

Saito, A., & Shinozuka, K. (2013). Vocal recognition of owners by domestic cats (Felis catus). Animal Cognition, 16(4), 685-690. doi: 10.1007/s10071-013-0620-4

Note: a slightly different version of this post can be found on the website of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.

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