Cats React to ‘Baby Talk’ From Their Owners, but Not Strangers

New research provides evidence cats see their person as “more than just a food provider”

A brown striped cat lying on its belly with its head tilted to the side.
Previous research has shown that dogs respond to pet-directed speech, but there's less research on cats' responses.  Roy Bjrge / 500px via Getty Images

Using “baby talk” could effectively grab your cat's attention, a small study finds. But this bond appears unique to owners: When strangers addressed the cats, even high-pitched cooing wasn’t enough to pique the animals’ interest.

The new paper, published Tuesday in Animal Cognition, is “an indication that cats really can distinguish that the sound they’re hearing is relevant to them,” Marsha Reijgwart, who studies animal behavior at the Netherlands-based educational research facility Purr Doctors and did not contribute to the study, tells National Geographic’s Carrie Arnold.

“What we found is that cats can discriminate between speech that is specifically addressed just to them by their owner from their speech addressed to other humans,” Charlotte de Mouzon, the paper's first author and an ethologist (animal behavior researcher) at Paris Nanterre University in France, tells Gizmodo’s Ed Cara.

Previous research has shown that dogs pay more attention when we speak to them in the way we talk to human babies—with high-pitched voices, extended vowels and short phrases, writes Science’s David Grimm.

But there’s been less research on how cats respond to this pet-directed speech. Jennifer Vonk, a comparative psychologist at Oakland University who didn’t contribute to the study, tells National Geographic that experiments with cats are harder, because they aren’t easily trained and often get scared in new environments. They’re also perceived as being less social than dogs, Vonk says to the publication.

In the new study, de Mouzon and her colleagues worked with 16 cats aged between 8 months and 2 years old that belonged to students at the National Veterinary School in Alfort, France, according to New Scientist’s Christa Lesté-Lasserre.

The researchers recorded the owners speaking phrases such as, “Do you want to play?” and “Do you want a treat?” both in pet-directed speech and as they would speak to other adults. They also had 16 women unknown to the cats record the same phrases.

The cats were then played the recordings in their own homes with their owner present but not interacting with them, according to New Scientist.

In one experiment, the researchers played five recordings for each cat. The first three recordings and the last recording were of the owner using adult-directed speech, while the fourth was of the owner’s pet-directed speech. The researchers graded the intensity of the cats’ reactions—including dilated pupils, turning their ears, pausing activity or moving toward the voice—on a scale from zero to 20.

On average, the cats’ responsiveness decreased as each of the first three recordings played, but their attention rebounded significantly with the pet-directed speech, per Science. It dropped again when the final recording of adult-directed speech played.

When the team repeated the experiment with the voice of a stranger, the cats again became gradually less attentive—but they remained disinterested when the pet-directed speech played, according to Science.

The cats’ lack of response to “baby talk” from strangers could be because all the cats were indoor pets and therefore didn’t have many opportunities to interact with new people, de Mouzon says to New Scientist.

“It’s a fascinating study,” Kristyn Vitale, an ethologist studying cat cognition at Unity College who did not contribute to the paper, tells Science. “It further supports the idea that our cats are always listening to us.”

Esther Bouma, who studies cat behavior with Reijgwart at Purr Doctors and was not involved with the new research, notes to National Geographic that the small size of the study and the similarities between the cats and owners make it hard to generalize the findings to all relationships between cats and humans.

But de Mouzon tells New Scientist that the results are further evidence that cats are “sensitive and communicative individuals.”

“The fact that they show a special reaction to a special way we talk to them means, I think, that we are something more just than a food provider in their world,” she tells Gizmodo.

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