Cats React to the Baby Chatter of Their Owners

A small study shows that using “baby language” can effectively attract your cat’s attention. But this connection seems unique to the owners: If strangers addressed the cats, even a high cooing was not enough to arouse the interest of the animals.

The new article, published Tuesday in Animal Cognition, is “an indication that cats can really distinguish that the sound they hear is relevant to them,” Marsha Reijgwart, who studies animal behavior at the Dutch educational research center Purr Doctors and did not contribute to the study, tells Carrie Arnold of National Geographic.

“What we have discovered is that cats can distinguish in the middle of a speech that is specifically addressed to them by their owner and their speech that is addressed to other people,” Charlotte de Mouzon, initial author of the article and ethologist (researcher in animal behavior) at the University of Paris Nanterre in France, tells Ed Cara from Gizmodo.

Previous research has shown that dogs pay more attention when we talk to them in the same way as to human babies — with high-pitched voices, elongated vowels and short judgements, writes David Grimm from Science.

But there has been less research on how cats react to this pet-led speech. Jennifer Vonk, a comparative psychologist at Oakland University who was not involved in the study, tells National Geographic that experiments with cats are more difficult because they are not easy to train and are often afraid in new environments. They are also perceived as less sociable than dogs, Vonk tells the publication.

In the new study, de Mouzon and his colleagues worked with 16 cats aged 8 months to 2 years belonging to students from the National Veterinary School in Alfort, France, according to Christa Lesté-Lasserre of the New Scientist.

The researchers recorded how the owners uttered phrases such as “do you want to play?”and “do you want a reward?”both in the speech of a pet and in a conversation with other matures. They also asked 16 women not known to the cats to record the same phrases.

The cats then played the recordings in their own home with their owner present, but without interacting with them, according to New Scientist.

In one experiment, the researchers played five moves for each cat. The initial three shots and the last shot showed the owner with an mature-led speech, while the fourth was the owner’s pet-led speech. The researchers rated the intensity of the cats’ responses — including dilated pupils, ear rotation, interruption of activity or approaching the voice — on a scale of zero to 20.

On average, the cats’ responsiveness decreased when each of the initial three recordings was played, but their attention recovered significantly with animal-directed language, according to science. It dropped again when the last recording of an mature-led speech was played.

When the team repeated the experiment with the voice of a stranger, the cats gradually became less attentive again — but they remained indifferent when the speech directed by the animals was played, according to science.

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