Cat owners have long suspected that their feline friends can recognize and understand them. Now, they have scientific proof.
A study, published in the journal Animal Cognition, has demonstrated how cats change their behavior when they hear their owner’s voice in a tone directed to them, but not when their owner is talking to other people.
This difference is only apparent when the cats are spoken to by their owners and not when they are approached by strangers, suggesting that cats recognize and respond to the sound of their owner’s voice, but that they are only interested in them when they are being spoken to directly.
“I think it’s safe to say cats understand human speech, not only by what outcome that speech portrays [but also] the familiarity of certain tones and what the outcome of those are too,” feline behaviorist and author Anita Kelsey told Newsweek.
“In my opinion, [they are] not so much understanding the words and their meaning in the human sense, but understanding through association of what happens from that word.”
In the latest research, 16 cats were played recordings of their owners and the voices of strangers, speaking both to them and to other humans. Changes in behavior, such as ear movements, pupil dilation and tail movement, were then monitored by the scientists.
In the first experiment, the cats were played a stranger’s voice calling their name, followed by that of their owner. In the second, the cats were played their owner’s voice, first directed at them and then directed at another human. In both cases, the cats’ behavior intensified when their owner directed their speech towards them. This difference wasn’t observed when they were spoken to by a stranger.
Although the sample size used in this study was small, the data adds further evidence to the theory that cats are able to form strong bonds with their owners.
Cats are often perceived as anti-social animals, but Kelsey says that this assumption is unfounded: “I think this stereotype comes from the fact we are a species with a special affiliation to dogs, and dogs are people pleasers. As cats are not people pleasers, they have been stamped with being anti-social pets.
“Cats do in fact show us a whole plethora of affection in a different way and do have strong bonds with their guardians.”
Despite this ability to form strong bonds with people, many cat owners are still at a loss as to what their pets are actually trying to say to them. But thanks to machine learning, we might soon be able to decipher their declarations.
A former Amazon Alexa engineer has developed an app called Meowtalk, which uses AI and machine learning to “decode” the animals’ misunderstood meows. The app instantaneously translates cat “speech” into one of 11 general intents–like hunger, anger or contentment–and can even be trained to learn specific phrases.
Despite mixed reviews, the app has been downloaded over 17 million times. It’s available in 14 different languages and, since its launch in 2020, over 250 million meows have already been recorded. Their eventual aim is to develop a smart collar that would translate your cat’s meow instantly.
“Cats have a wide range of how they communicate with us and other cats, through body language, scent, and vocalizations,” Kelsey said. “Only through understanding these complex pets and how they communicate can we begin to understand and help them with any issues they may display in a home or rescue setting.”
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