- New research suggests that cats may be more discerning about their owners than dogs when it comes to the nuances of their voice.
- Cats have a stronger reaction to cat-directed speech than to human-directed speech, but only if their owner is talking.
- Dogs tend to be less discerning and react to dog-directed speech regardless of who is talking.
If you own a cat, it may seem that she ignores you most of the time—and when she doesn't, it's only because she wants food. Dogs, on the other hand, have nothing but shiny-eyed enthusiasm for their owners. As the saying goes, dogs think of their owners as gods and cats as (more or less interchangeable) slaves.
But a recent study turns this picture completely upside down. It suggests that cats are in fact more discerning about their owners than dogs, at least when it comes to the nuances of their voice.
The background of the study is the widely researched fact that we, humans, talk very differently when we talk to our pets. When we talk to pets—and often to babies—our speech typically has a higher pitch, extended vowels, and a lot of repetition. Researchers call this cat-directed speech and dog-directed speech.
The question is this: How do cats react to cat-directed speech and how is it different from the way dogs react to dog-directed speech? The reaction of dogs is pretty hard to miss as it ranges from jumping up and down to jumping up and down like mad. But cats are, as so often, more subtle. They turn their ears or even their head slightly in the direction of the voice and they may stop self-grooming. But how is it different from reacting to normal speech?
The answer is that cats have a much stronger reaction to cat-directed speech than to normal (human-directed) speech, but—and this is the punchline—only if it's their owner talking. If it is anyone else, then they don't have this special reaction. Dogs, in contrast, are less discerning. They react to any dog-directed speech, regardless of who is talking.
These findings rule out that it is the simple acoustic features of speech that arouse the cats' interest, like the high pitch or the repetition, which would be a tempting explanation. But this is clearly not so as the same acoustic features do nothing when it is a stranger who utters them. Cat-directed speech is only special if it comes from the owner.
All this clearly doesn't show that cats are more interested in their owners than dogs, let alone love them more. But in one important respect, they are more discerning. They do have a special bond with their owner in this sense. Maybe that's something to hold onto for cat owners in those—very many—moments when it really doesn't seem that way.
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