I recently came across several articles on the web written about a study published in the Animal Cognition journal. According to i09.com researchers from Japan designed an experiment to determine whether cats responded to their owner’s voices. The researchers, Atsuko Saito and Kazutaka Shinozuka, concluded that although cats can recognize their owner’s voice, they don’t actively respond to their voice. The results have generated a lot of buzz and many articles have been written around the study; unfortunately, the initial conclusion drawn by these articles is that cats don’t love us! As a life-long cat lover, I felt compelled to write a rebuttal.
The study of vocal recognition in cats
Headlines like, “cats don’t love us” generate an immediate and intense emotional response from cat parents, but because any legitimate rebuttal must begin by first examining the study objectively I must put my emotion aside. The first question I asked myself was, “how did these researchers come to their conclusions?”
They studied 20 domestic cats in their home environment and presented each cat with a recording of their name (or nickname) being called out by 4 strangers and their owner. The cat’s reaction was videotaped and masked observers graded their behaviors.
The researchers found that cats reacted more strongly when they heard their name called out by their owners. This suggests that cats can distinguish their owner’s voice from strangers. However, they reported that cats did not respond with communicative behavior such as purring. They explained this behavior by suggesting that unlike dogs — domesticated by humans to obey commands — cats “domesticated themselves” to hunt rodents living in our grain stores and homes.
I have 4 objections to articles that look at this vocal recognition study and assume cats don’t love us
While many articles extrapolate that cats don’t love humans, the study never attempted to assess whether or not cats love their owners; it simply evaluated a cat’s response to their name being called out. I can illustrate my point by mentioning that I don’t think my kids would always respond with “communicative behavior” if they heard their name called out by me, but I still believe they love me.
While voice recordings were intentionally used to standardize the vocal cues and minimize variables, it is reasonable to suspect that a cat’s hearing may be able to distinguish a voice recording from the real deal; and that a cat’s response would be different towards voice recordings.
As cat lovers will attest, cats have unique personalities and a sample size of 20 cats is probably too small to make generalizations and take into account differences in cat personalities. I have had cats that ranged from being fiercely independent to being highly dependent (following me around like my shadow) and everything in between. In order to account for these wide variances, the study sample size needed to be much larger.
Cats, dogs, and people are different in how they respond to vocal cues. As the study suggested, dogs were domesticated and selectively bred to respond to our commands and therefore it would be reasonable to expect them to be more attuned to vocal cues. Cats, on the other hand, were not bred to follow our commands. Yet, as most cat owners will attest, cats do love us. If we want to determine whether cats love their owners, the experimental design should account for these inherent differences between cats and dogs. A better way to assess whether cats love their owners would be to determine if they are more likely to exhibit communicative behavior such as purring when petted by their owners compared to being petted by strangers.
My own conclusions of the vocal recognition study
So what does the study tell us? It provides evidence that cats can distinguish their owner’s voice from that of a stranger (which is good information to have) but it falls well short of proving that cats don’t’ love humans.
An important take home point is that when reading attention-grabbing headlines about the way cats feel, it pays to have a healthy skepticism and go to the source where you can read the original article. Unless you’re a cat owner — then you can trust your gut and know that of course your cat loves you!