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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