Ever been caught using your "pet voice" when you thought no one was around? Most people speak to their cats in a voice they don't use with the other people in their lives. We may even believe that our cats can understand what we're saying when we talk to them, but do they? New research out of France supposes that they can, but interestingly enough, it's not really what we say that gets through to them, but how we say it.
A new study looks at how "baby talk" affects cats
Many people use high-pitched tones to speak to young children, and research, like this 2017 study published in The Royal Society, has already been done to examine the baby talk we use to speak to our dogs and its effects. But what about cats? A team of French researchers set out to see if cats could understand what people are saying, and their findings were published in a new study in Animal Cognition.
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The researches wanted to see whether cats respond better to what's known as infant-directed speech or adult-directed speech, which sounds very different in terms of tone, pitch, delivery, and even volume. What they found was that cats were able to understand when their owners spoke to them as long as they used infant-directed speech, namely, in a higher pitch. When the cat owners used adult-directed speech, the message was mostly lost on the felines. Additionally, they only noticed this difference when it was their owners speaking, and no matter how the strangers in the experiment spoke, be it infant-directed speech or adult-directed speech, the cats didn't care, they just kind of ignored it all.
High-pitched speech comes naturally to cats, and us
During their research, the team studied 16 companion cats and two different groups of people in a habituation-dishabituation paradigm, which allows subjects to become familiar with the new thing at hand over time (in this case, it was cats hearing people talking.) They had one group of people speak to the cats over video, and the other group speak to cats in person. The people involved in the study used "baby voice" some of the time, and standard adult-directed speech other times to see how the cats responded. In doing so, they noticed a couple of things about cat behavior that may help cat caregivers build stronger relationships with their feline best friends. First, they noticed that the cats responded to the high-pitched voices much more than to the "regular" human speech that we use to speak with each other. They also confirmed previous findings that, more often, women used a higher pitch than men to address the cats. Finally, cats responded best to their own owners who used a "baby voice" to address them, and could tell when those owners were talking to them versus when they were using typical adult-directed speech.
Earlier research on domestic cats has shown that people used cat-directed speech, or a baby voice, much more when they dealt with kittens than adult cats. A 2002 study published in Science looked at how people spoke to live animals versus robot versions of that same animal, in this case, dogs, and found that the high-pitched pet-directed speech voice was used much more with real dogs than robot dogs.
So, not only do animals respond more to us when we use a high-pitched voice, we're also, for some reason, inclined to use that voice with them, even though it's not how we speak most of the time. This information can possibly help people nurture their existing cat relationships by understanding what we both get out of these human-cat interactions.
Here are some other questions you may have about talking to your cats.
Do cats understand their owner's voice?
Yes! Or at least, cats can discriminate speech between their owner and a stranger. And, cats can understand when their owners are speaking to them versus when they are speaking to another adult person.
Do cats understand a stranger's voice?
No, cats don't respond when a stranger is talking. This recent study, and others like it, showed that cats didn't really pay much attention to strangers when they were talking, even when that stranger used the feline-preferred baby voice that's high-pitched and somewhat slow.
What is cat-directed speech?
The term "cat-directed speech" (CDS) is used to describe the way many people speak to cats, and includes the pitch, tone, length of sentences, and repetition. Previously, pet-directed speech was the only term used to describe this speech pattern when used with animals, and was mostly comprised of research done with dogs to understand how dog-directed speech affects them. It wasn't until recently that scientists looked specifically at how cats respond to their owners, and began studying how people speak to felines, specifically. Research teams have noticed that cat-directed speech, as well as all pet-directed speech, is very similar to the way adults talk to babies and young children, and includes a high pitch, short sentences, repetition, and exaggerated intonation, which can sound almost sing-songy.
Do cats understand words?
Not really. That's not to say that cats can't be trained, or train themselves, to associate certain words and actions, like when it's time for dinner or even their own names. The key to helping your cat understand certain words is by allowing them to build a positive association with it. So, if you want your cat to learn to come to you when you call them, be sure to use their name in a positive context by saying their name while praising them when they follow you, and resist using their name in negative situations, like yelling their name angrily when they jump on the counter.
Do cats understand humans?
This 2022 study didn't prove that cats can understand humans, but it did reveal that cats can understand when their specific human is speaking to them, so long as that person is using the high-pitch cat-directed speech voice (AKA, baby voice.) If you and your cat have a close relationship, your cat may even chirp or meow back to you, but it doesn't mean that they're responding to what you're saying.
Cats pay more attention to humans when those people use a higher pitch than normal to speak to them. Known as cat-directed speech, or baby voice, this speech pattern is also used among dogs and children. The study also showed that cats can differentiate their owner's voice from a stranger's voice, especially when this higher pitch is used. They can also tell when you're talking to them versus when you're just talking to another human friend. So basically, if you need to talk behind your cat's back, just speak in the same way that you would an adult human friend—chances are, they won't pay you any mind.
- The Royal Society Publishing: Dog-Directed Speech: Why do We Use It and Do Dogs Pay Attention to It?
- Science Direct: How’s My Kitty? Acoustic Parameters of Cat-Directed Speech in Human-Cat Interactions
- Springer: Discrimination of Cat-Directed Speech from Human-Directed Speech in a Population of Indoor Companion Cats
- Science: What's New Pussycat? On Talking to Babies and Animals