Cats Understand Us, Ignore Us on Purpose

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Science has confirmed what we suspected about cats all along: Yes, they understand us when we talk. They just don't care about what we have to say. A recent study at the University of Tokyo demonstrated that cats recognize their owners' voices, but choose to ignore them.

In the study, published in the journal Animal Cognition, 20 cats were observed for eight months responding to a series of audio recordings of five people calling each cat's name. Of the five, four of the voices belonged to strangers, while one belonged to the cat's owner. Researchers observed each cat's physical response to the recordings, including their ear, tail and head movements, vocalization, eye dilation and paw movements.

The study found that 50 to 70 percent of the cats moved their heads in reaction to any voice, and 30 percent move their ears, but these are typical responses to hearing any sound. Ten percent of the cats responded by moving their tails or meowing.

Basically, very few of the cats could muster up the gumption to respond at all to being called. Interestingly, the cats did display stronger responses when hearing their owners' voices, which indicates they do recognize the difference and perhaps have special relationships with their owners, but they still didn't bother moving either way.

"These results indicate that cats do not actively respond with communicative behavior to owners who are calling them from out of sight, even though they can distinguish their owners' voices," Atsuko Saito and Kazutaka Shinozuka wrote in their study. "This cat-owner relationship is in contrast to that with dogs."

The study posits that this difference between how cats and dogs relate to their owners can be traced back to how each animal was domesticated. Humans have bred and trained dogs over thousands of years, conditioning them to obey commands. The same is not true for cats. Instead, according to the study, cats "domesticated themselves."

"Historically speaking, cats, unlike dogs, have not been domesticated to obey humans' orders," the study says. "Rather, they seem to take the initiative in human-cat interaction."

The study also points out that although cats seem not to care about their owners as much as dogs do, cat owners and dog owners are equally attached to their pets.

"The behavioral aspect of cats that cause their owners to become attached to them are still undetermined," Saito and Shinozuka write.


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Marcos da Silva

My old cat starved when I spend 2 weeks in a different city. He was missing me so much that he didn't want to eat. I had to move and now he lives with my mother. Sometimes he ignores me because I know he's a bit sad by the fact that I left him.

I bet the cats ignored the records because they knew it wasn't their real owner calling.

June 17 2014 at 10:10 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Yes, it IS determined. A cat is a mini-predator. Humans are programmed to watch the movements of any large predator in sight.

December 09 2013 at 6:35 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Mr. Ciampanelli -

Where did you get your information from when you wrote this article? Did you make it up? I suggest you learn more about cats before you write articles such as this one.

December 08 2013 at 12:37 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I have had cats all my life and I strongly disagree with this report. The most significant reason a cat will attach itself to its human counterpart is the bond that is made between them. Of course the stronger the bond and the more interaction one has with its cat, the more the cat will respond and interact with its owner.

My wife and I have 7 cats and not a single one of them will ever ignore us or avoid any play time interaction should we choose to initiate it. Most of these experiments mentioned here only serve to accomplish one thing and that is to erroneously compare dogs to cats. They are two distinct species, with differing characteristics, and should be respected as such.

December 07 2013 at 5:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I disagree. I had a cat who I would call by name from my backyard and he would come running back within a few minutes.

December 05 2013 at 11:23 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply


December 05 2013 at 8:05 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I Love Cats...................

December 05 2013 at 7:09 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Endearing study and report on Paul Campanelli...they do allow us to pet their luxurious manes...sometimes.

December 05 2013 at 6:24 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

When I come home from wherever - work, church, working out, shopping, etc. - my cat often meets me at the door, runs far enough away for me to put my things down, plops down on the floor and rolls around and squirms until I pet her. If she is not at the door when I come in, I call, "....(her name)...., I'm home!" and she comes running. Maybe being a rescue cat who was dropped off at the shelter starving after she had been abandoned by her first owners has given her a good sense of gratitude, but she certainly does interact with me and not only on her terms.

December 05 2013 at 6:22 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to javadic's comment

My beautiful year old Siamese came from ASPCA Houston. She had just been spayed and given all those shots and was very scary. Took her two weeks to loosen up but she hid in a hole she found under the cabinet for those two weeks because she had had the surgery the day before we adopted her. She is BEAUTIFUL now. Got her for my 60th bday. she is almost one year old and loving. she started coming out of her hole after she had healed up when I was cooking hamburger meat for tacos. that smell got her out.:}} She had dry food and water available and she would come out during the night and eat. I saw the evidence of that, but when that taco meat was frying....well that did it. Love her. Her name is Coco and I feel certain that since she was starving and picked up by the shelter then sliced and diced upon, she was so grateful to be here with us. they know where they got it good at. :))

December 05 2013 at 10:45 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

We know what your talking about. Our cat of 16 years (LiLi) recently died. We still dream about her. The more she was aloof the more we loved her.

December 05 2013 at 6:05 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
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