Cats' Reactions to Owners

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research, now in all-pdf form. Get a subscription now for only $25 a year!

Cat-centric research
compiled by Dirk Manley, Improbable Research staff

Cats Recognize (But Don’t Always Respond to) Owners’ Voices
“Vocal Recognition of Owners by Domestic Cats (Felis catus),” Atsuko Saito and Kazutaka Shinozuka, Animal Cognition, vol. 16, no. 4, July 2013, pp. 685-690. The authors, at the University of Tokyo, report:

We studied 20 domestic cats to investigate whether they could recognize their owners by using voices that called out the subjects’ names, with a habituation–dishabituation method. While the owner was out of the cat’s sight, we played three different strangers’ voices serially, followed by the owner’s voice. We recorded the cat’s reactions to the voices and categorized them into six behavioral categories. In addition, ten naive raters rated the cats’ response magnitudes. The cats responded to human voices not by communicative behavior (vocalization and tail movement), but by orienting behavior (ear movement and head movement). This tendency did not change even when they were called by their owners. Of the 20 cats, 15 demonstrated a lower response magnitude to the third voice than to the first voice. These habituated cats showed a significant rebound in response to the subsequent presentation of their owners’ voices. This result indicates that cats are able to use vocal cues alone to distinguish between humans.

Detail from the study “Vocal Recognition of Owners by Domestic Cats (Felis catus).”

Cats May Sometimes Pay Some Attention to Their Owners
Social Referencing and Cat–Human Communication,” I. Merola, M. Lazzaroni, S. Marshall-Pescini, and E. Prato-Previde, Animal Cognition, epub January 2015. (Thanks to Hugh Henry for bringing this to our attention.) The authors, at Università degli Studi di Milano, Italy; University of Lincoln, UK; Medical University of Vienna; and the University of Vienna, Austria, explain:

One group of cats observed their owner delivering a positive emotional message, whereas another group received a negative emotional message. The aim was to evaluate whether cats use the emotional information provided by their owners about a novel/unfamiliar object to guide their own behaviour towards it. We assessed the presence of social referencing, in terms of referential looking towards the owner (defined as looking to the owner immediately before or after looking at the object), the behavioural regulation based on the owner’s emotional (positive vs. negative) message (vocal and facial), and the observational conditioning following the owner’s actions towards the object. Most cats (79 %) exhibited referential looking between the owner and the object, and also to some extent changed their behaviour in line with the emotional message given by the owner.

Detail from the study “Social Referencing and Cat–Human Communication.”

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This article is republished with permission from the January-February 2016 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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'This result indicates that cats are able to use vocal cues alone to distinguish between humans.'
No, really? My, what astounding news. Cats can recognize their 'staff' just by their voices! Humans do the same thing.
Hmm... wonder how much money was spent on that foolish test?
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