How do you talk to your cat? Do you use a high voice? Do you typically speak in your native language, or do you tend to speak "cat," using meows and purrs?
Researchers at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary published a study that examined the "the socio-cognitive relationship between cats and humans." In a survey, researchers asked 157 Hungarian cat owners about their cat's behavior, cognitive abilities and social interactions.
The authors of the study, Péter Pongrácz and Julianna Szulamit Szapu, wanted to gain a deeper understanding of exactly how humans interact with cats. They aimed to find out what kind of communications humans and cats use when interacting; how well humans understand what their cats are trying to say; and what kinds of factors might influence a cat-human relationship.
Cat cognition is still an emerging science.
Even though cats have lived among us for about 8,000 years, science has spent way more time studying dogs than cats. We're not sure why that is, but it may have to do with the perception that cats, unlike dogs, are untrainable. That's simply not true — just ask Cat School — but it's difficult to dispel a long-held cultural perception. There are also roughly 10 times more dog breeds than cat breeds, about 400 compared to about 40, which provides more genetic diversity and makes it a little easier to study genomes.
For that reason, this new study is unique and important. Plus, their findings are fascinating. Below are some of the highlights:
Cats are good at following our visual signals.
Owners reported that their cats are very good at following visual signals, like pointing or looking in certain directions. This finding is especially interesting because dogs are usually the ones lauded for being able to read human body language. Are cats finally getting the credit they're due?
The study also found that if a cat is the only pet in the household, the owner is more likely to use pointing signals with the cat.
We speak "cat" to our cats, but we don't speak "dog" to our dogs.
The survey found that many cat owners tend to make cat-like vocalizations to their cats, meowing or purring at them as a means of communication. Interestingly, most dog owners do not make dog-like vocalizations to their dogs. Instead, dog owners "baby talk" to their dogs, using their native language. Cat owners do this too, but with the addition of occasionally "speaking cat" to them.
Your age, education, and playfulness play a part in communicating with your cat.
The survey also found that younger cat owners are more likely than older owners to imitate cat vocalizations. Owners who initiate play with their cats are more frequently and also more likely to "speak cat." People with higher levels of education were less likely to use cat-like vocalizations when communicating with their cats.
Most humans are not certain what their cats' meows mean.
Most respondents felt uncertain about what their cats were trying to communicate when they meowed. They knew their cat wanted something, but they weren't sure what.
These are just a few of the study's findings. You can read the abstract here, or look for the published paper, titled "The socio-cognitive relationship between cats and humans – Companion cats (Felis catus) as their owners see them," in the Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science.
What should we do with this information?
This study has lots of interesting takeaways.
- Know that your age and level of education may influence how you communicate with your cat! Specifically, whether you speak to cats like they were human, or whether you "speak cat" to them.
- Realize that cats are good at following our visual signals. They don't get enough credit for this, but cats seem to understand what it means when we point or signal with our gaze.
- If you don't know what your cat is trying to tell you, you're not alone. The majority of cat owners surveyed weren't sure what their cat was trying to communicate with their meows. Cats, if you're reading this, maybe work on improving your clarity.
Most of all, the study helps us understand that the ways in which the human-cat relationship is special and unique. It's different than our relationships with other animals, including dogs. Cats remain more mysterious than their canine counterparts, but we're hopeful for studies that will further illuminate the cat-human bond.