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What We Understand about Cats and What They Understand about Us

A big part of cats' lives are spent around their human owners, yet scientists are just starting to understand what they think of us.

Sensitivity to human cues

Since cats have both been bred to be domestic and spend a lot of time with humans, we would expect them to pick up on human cues to some extent. However, anyone who has owned a cat knows that they are not always as responsive as you might want them to be.

One way in which we frequently attempt to interact with the animals that live with us is by pointing at things. It is possible that this shows our limitations rather than our animal friends since this is a particularly human means of communication. However, in 2005 a study by Miklósi et al. demonstrated that cats could indeed follow human gestures to find food. The researchers also investigated whether, when unable to solve a task, whether the cats turned to the humans for help at all. They did not.

Cats seem to be able to understand pointing.

Another study looked to see whether cats turn to humans when unsure about a certain situation. This ‘social referencing’ is something that we do both as children and as adults, for example a clown might initially seem terrifying but if everyone else is having a good time we may quickly learn that this isn’t a situation to be feared (there are always exceptions to this of course). To see whether cats do this too, the researchers exposed cats to a potentially scary fan with streamers. The cat was brought into a room with their owner and the fan was put on. The owner was then told to act either neutral, scared of the fan, or happy and relaxed around the fan. The researchers found that most cats (79%) looked between the fan and their human owner, seeming to gage their response. The cats also responded to the emotional response of their owner, being more likely to move away from the fan when their owner was looking scared, as well as being more likely to interact with their owner. It’s difficult to know how to interpret this, but the authors suggest that the cats may have been seeking security from their owner.

Other research has also shown that cats are sensitive to human moods, being less likely to approach people who were feeling sad and more likely to approach people who described themselves as feeling extroverted or agitated. However, why this should be isn’t clear.

Believe it or not, cats respond to their owner's mood.

Human voice recognition

Two researchers, Saito and Shinozuka in 2013 demonstrated that cats can recognise their owner’s voice. To test this, the researchers played cats recordings of either their owner calling them or other people calling their name. The cats were the most responsive to their owner calling. This response was mostly seen in terms of the cat moving its ears or head, rather than walking towards the voice as a dog might.

Vocal communication

Kittens have around 9 different types of vocalisation, while adults have around 16 different types. Interestingly, domestic and feral cats also differ from each other in their vocalisations, implying that their relationships with humans influences how cats ‘talk’. Perhaps one of the most renowned vocalisations of cats is their purr. Cats don’t just purr when being stroked by humans, they also use it in interactions with each other and with their kittens. What’s more, cats alter their purr to change the meaning of the vocalization. For example, when asking for food from owners, cats’ purrs change, becoming more ‘urgent’ and ‘less pleasant’ (McComb et al. 2009). When asking for food, a high-frequency miaow is usually also embedded within the lower-pitch purr. However, whether this food solicitation call is specific to cats’ relationship to humans or whether they use it in other contexts, is currently unknown.

Kittens have around 9 different types of vocalization.

Attachment to owner

In 2007, Edwards et al. carried out the unusually-named ‘Ainsworth Strange Situation Test’ in order to test whether cats were more attached to their owners than to a random human. In this test, the cat was essentially placed in a room and experienced being alone, being with their human owner and being with an unknown human. The researchers found that cats spent more time allogrooming (head-butting) their owners than the stranger. They also only ever followed and played with their owner and never with the stranger. The cats were generally more exploratory and moved around more when their owner was in the room compared to the stranger. Both when alone and with the stranger, the cat generally spent more time being alert and sitting by the door. They vocalised the most when alone (compared to when with either human). Thus it seems that cats do have attachment to their owners that is stronger than with a random human, which is perhaps somewhat comforting to know.

Cats also seem to experience separation anxiety, which also indicates that they feel attachment to their owners. When separated from their human owners, cats are more likely to display stress behaviours such as urinating and defecating in inappropriate locations, excessive vocalisation, destructiveness and excessive grooming.

While the studies that exist on cat cognition have helped illuminate some of the abilities of our elusive housemates, there are still large parts of cat behaviour that remain understudied and mean we still don’t understand many aspects of cat behaviour. A greater understanding of cats’ behaviour and our influence on it will lead to better human-cat interactions, cat welfare and therefore the number of cats that are given to shelters and euthanized.


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