Captive big cats can tell voices apart

Some captive felines like lions can tell if their caregiver or a stranger is talking.
Two lionesses. One tilts her head towards the left, while the other sticks out her tongue.
Both domesticated and wild felines might not be as aloof as they seem. Deposit Photos

Domesticated animals like cats, dogs, horses, and pigs can recognize their names when called by human caregivers. Some new research suggests that exotic big cats that are tended to by humans in captivity can also discriminate the familiar voices of their caregivers from other people. The findings are described in a study published February 15 in the journal PeerJ Life & Environment

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Previous studies found that domesticated cats can recognize their names and can even tell their names apart from other words. Less attention has been paid to how well non-domestic cats respond to human voices. Understanding how well an exotic feline can differentiate from a caregiver saying their name from a stranger could help keep the animals safer.

“My graduate student, Taylor Crews, had worked as an exotic cat caregiver for many years and wanted to design a Masters project that informed us of their ability to respond to their name and the voice of familiar caregivers,” Jennifer Vonk, a study co-author and comparative/cognitive psychologist at Oakland University in Michigan, tells PopSci. “Having been in the zoo world, she noted that zoos are sometimes concerned that having the public speak animals’ names may be distracting for the cats.”

To look closer, the team designed a series of experiments to gauge if non-domesticated captive big cats could recognize familiar voices. They played audio recordings of known and unknown humans to 25 different cat species, including cheetahs, tigers, and lions. All of the cats had varied rearing history, meaning that some of the cats had been raised by their mothers, while others were brought up by humans. 

They found consistent evidence of voice recognition and the cats responded more intensely, quickly, and for a longer period of time to familiar voices than they did for unfamiliar ones. 

“Non-domestic cats seem to respond similarly to domestic cats in responding more strongly to a familiar caregiver’s voice, but we did not find evidence that they respond more strongly to the use of their names,” says Vonk. “We were able to show that rearing history was not predictive, but, overall, cats did respond selectively to their familiar caregiver’s voice.”

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According to Vonk, close human contact instead of domestication was associated more closely with the cats’ ability to discriminate between human voices. This also challenges the idea that less social species don’t have the same cognitive abilities as more outgoing or group-living species like dogs.

“It is important not to assume that non-group living animals are less equipped to reason about aspects of social behavior or form social bonds,” says Vonk. “Even non-domestic cats distinguish their caregivers from other humans, suggesting they are not as indifferent as people sometimes assume.”

The team is further testing the recognition of familiar human voices in snakes and owls, to see how well reptiles and birds can recognize voices.