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There are many different adjectives often used to describe feline friends, ranging from the positive descriptions of “independent” or “snuggly” to the more negative descriptors of “cold” and “aloof.” While it might seem like cats aren’t listening as well as their canine counterparts, a small small study published yesterday in the journal Animal Cognition shows that that cats potentially alter their behavior when they hear their owner’s voice speaking in a tone directed to them. But when it sounds like their owner is speaking to another human, they really aren’t paying attention.

The study of 16 cats (nine male and seven female) adds to the evidence that some cats can actually form strong bonds with their owners. Charlotte de Mouzon and colleagues from Université Paris Nanterre in France investigated how the cats reacted to pre-recorded voices, that included both their owner and a stranger. The speakers in the recordings used phrases in both a in hither pitched cat-directed tone and a deeper human adult-directed tone.

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The authors investigated three separate conditions and recorded and rated the behavior intensity of cats reacting to the audio, including resting, ear moving, pupil dilation, tail moving, and more. 

The first condition changed the voice of the speaker from a stranger’s voice to the cat’s owner. Ten out of the 16 cats showed a decrease in behavior intensity, when they heard three audio clips of a stranger’s voice calling the cats by their name. When the cats heart their owner’s voice saying their names, the behavior intensity significantly increased. They turned turned their ears towards the speakers, moved around the room more, and even had dilated pupils. The authors claim that this “sudden rebound in behavior” shows that that cats could discriminate their owner’s voice from a stranger’s voice.

Your cat probably knows when you’re talking to it
Examples of behavioral changes in cats: before (a), during (b) ,and after (c) a stimulus begins. The upper cat is grooming before hearing a voice, and then freezes, and movies towards the speaker. The lower cat is resting, and the voice causes the its pupils to dilate, and its head to move towards the speaker. CREDIT: Charlotte de Mouzon.

The second condition changed the tone to cat-directed speech. Ten cats (eight of which were the same ones from the first condition) decreased their behavior when they heard audio of their owner speaking in more of an adult-directed tone, but significantly increased their behavior if their owner spoke in a more cat-directed tone.

[Related: Culver City is home to a unique cat versus coyote conflict.]

In the third condition, the strangers spoke in both an adult-directed and cat-directed tone, and the team didn’t observe any change in the intensity of the cat’s behaviors.

The small sample size of 16 cats used in this study doesn’t necessarily represent or speak for all felines, but the authors propose that future research could see if these findings can be replicated in cats that are more used to having strangers around. They also suggest that the findings show that car communication potentially relies on experiencing the speaker’s voice, and that one-to-one relationships are important for cats and humans for form strong bonds.