Japanese researchers showed that cats are able to recognize their owners’ voices from other voices, but because they domesticated themselves, they never really needed to take notice. The study supports the idea that while cats are often kept as pets, they are beholden to no one.
Reserchers Atsuko Saito and Kazutaka Shinozuka tested twenty housecats in their own homes; they waited until their owners were out of sight, then played them recordings of three strangers calling out their names, followed by their owners, and then another stranger. They then their responses by measuring ear, tail and head movement, vocalization, eye dilation and ‘displacement’ – shifting their paws to move.
Results showed that cats did showed some degree of response whenever their name is called, they were most receptive when their owners called them out. However, they declined to move when called by any of the volunteers.
“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,” write Saito and Shinozuka. “This cat–owner relationship is in contrast to that with dogs.”
Personally, I’m not totally sold on this type of study. My cat is very receptive when I call him, he comes at least 9 times out of 10 – I tested this a few times today already. My mother’s cat also does the same thing, and even my girlfriend’s cat, who’s 6 months old does it (we’re animal lovers, don’t judge us). So I don’t really know what to say about the validity of this study in a broader, general context.
But one thing’s for sure – cats are generally less receptive to calls than dogs; the Japanese researchers suggest that the reason for cats’ unresponsive behaviour might be traced back to the early domestication of the species.
“Historically speaking, cats, unlike dogs, have not been domesticated to obey humans’ orders. Rather, they seem to take the initiative in human–cat interaction.” This is in contrast to the history of dogs and humans, where the former has been bred over thousands of years to respond to orders and commands. Cats, it seems, never needed to learn.
However, the paper also notes that dog and cat owners love their pets just as much:
“Dogs are perceived by their owners as being more affectionate than cats […] dog owners and cat owners do not differ significantly in their reported attachment level to their pets”.
But what I really found funny is the last sentence in the study: “the behavioural aspect of cats that cause their owners to become attached to them are still undetermined.” So basically, they’re saying they have no idea why anyone would love cats.
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