Why Your Cat May Be More Human Than You Think

Pet Cat

Story at-a-glance -

  • In case you fear your cat ignores you because his hearing is bad or he doesn’t seem aware that you’re calling him, you can relax. He knows you’re speaking to him. He just doesn’t care!
  • Recent research at the University of Tokyo concludes that pet cats can clearly distinguish the sound of their owners’ voices from the voice of a stranger – but they’re just as unlikely to respond in either case.
  • The researchers concluded the difference between how cats and dogs respond to their humans may have its roots in the way the species were domesticated. Whereas dogs have been trained by humans for thousands of years to obey our commands, cats have essentially been left to domesticate themselves.
  • However, another study published in 2011 suggests that not only do cats attach closely to their owners – in particular, women – but human-cat relationships are very similar to human-human relationships.
  • Perhaps those of us owned by cats should compare the behavior of our feline friends not to our canine companions, but to other humans in our lives – especially close family members who sometimes tune us out when we speak!

By Dr. Becker

It’s official. Your cat really IS giving you the cold shoulder.

Not only is Garfield’s hearing just fine, so is his ability to understand when you’re speaking to him. He just doesn’t give a hoot.

Study Shows Pet Cats Recognize, But Ignore, Owners’ Voices

Researchers at the University of Tokyo published a study in the journal Animal Cognition1 a few months ago that suggests cats do indeed recognize their owners’ voices, but choose to ignore them.

The study evaluated 20 pet cats in their own homes over an eight-month period. When the owner was out of sight, five recordings were played for each cat. The first three recordings were of strangers calling the cat’s name. The fourth recording was the owner calling the cat’s name, and the fifth was another stranger.

The researchers analyzed the cats’ responses to each call by measuring movement of their ears, tails and heads; vocalization; dilation of pupils; and paw movements.

When they heard their names called, the cats exhibited orientating behavior, meaning they moved their heads and ears around to locate the origin of the sound. From 50 to 70 percent of the cats moved their heads in response to any voice, 30 percent moved their ears, and 10 percent moved their tails or meowed. The cats did show more of a response to their owner’s voice than to a stranger’s, but they didn’t bother to move no matter who called them.

Is It Because Cats Didn’t Evolve to Obey Human Orders?

According to the study’s authors:

"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. This cat-owner relationship is in contrast to that with dogs."

The researchers theorize the reason behind the kitties’ lack of response might be linked to the difference between how dogs and cats were domesticated. Humans have bred and trained dogs over thousands of years, whereas cats first began living in proximity to humans when they moved into early societies to prey on grain-eating rodents. According to the researchers, cats essentially “domesticated themselves.”

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

Or Is It Because Cat-Human Relationships Closely Resemble Human-to-Human Bonds?

An earlier study of 41 cats and their owners published in 2011 in the journal Behavioural Processes2 shows that the dynamics of cat-human relationships are very much like human-human bonds, with kitties even assuming the role of furry child in some families.

Researchers concluded cats do indeed attach to humans – especially women – as social partners, and not just because they want to keep their food bowls full.

According to a co-author of the 2011 study, researcher Jon Day of the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition, in an interview with Discovery News:

"Food is often used as a token of affection, and the ways that cats and humans relate to food are similar in nature to the interactions seen between the human caregiver and the pre-verbal infant. Both cat and human infant are, at least in part, in control of when and what they are fed!"

The researchers established that cats and their owners heavily influence one another, often to the extent that they control each other’s behaviors. Extroverted women with young, active cats seem to be the most in tune with each other. The kitties in these pairings only have to give subtle cues – for example, a single upright movement of the tail – to let their owners know they’re looking for friendly attention.

According to Discovery News, cats also seem to remember human kindness and return the favor later. If an owner fulfills her feline's wish to interact, the cat will often comply with the owner's desire for contact at other times.

Maybe Your Cat Is Just Practicing 'Selective Hearing' When He Ignores You

Humans regularly tune out the voices and behavior of other humans. Husbands are famous for developing selective hearing with their wives. Children are experts at not hearing requests to pick up their toys or brush their teeth. And teenagers have perfected the art of tuning out the world.

So the next time your kitty ignores you, rather than comparing her to your dog who never fails to come running when you call, consider instead that she’s actually more like a human member of the family who doesn’t always respond to the sound of your voice!