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While dogs are colloquially known as “man’s best friend,” cats also share a unique and emotionally close bond with their human companions. Scientists have proved that cats feel genuine affection for humans, know how to communicate their wants and needs to humans, and can even literally take on their human’s personality traits.
Now comes a new piece of evidence to add to the growing pile that allows felines to join canines in the pantheon of humanity’s favor: Cats are able to distinguish, just by listening, whether the humans they care about are talking to them or to other humans.
In a paper published in the journal Animal Cognition, researchers from the French college Université Paris Nanterre studied how 16 domesticated cats reacted to hearing the prerecorded voice of their companion when the owner in question was speaking directly to them. The researchers then contrasted this with the cats’ reactions to prerecordings of their owners speaking to another human — and, the scholars found, the cats tended to react differently in the latter situation.
This research comes on the back of other studies that demonstrate the close bond between humans and cats.
Just as intriguingly, while 10 out of 16 cats showed decreased interest when a stranger called out their name, they became engaged again when the voice speaking to them was that of their human. Eight of those same cats again showed a loss of interest when they heard their human talk to another human — which was signified by the use of a human-directed tone — but again gained interest when they could tell the human was talking to them.
“These findings bring a new dimension to the consideration of human–cat relationship, as they imply the development of a particular communication into human–cat dyads, that relies upon experience,” the authors conclude.
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This research comes on the back of other studies that demonstrate the close bond between humans and cats. Scientists from the ongoing research project TheyCanTalk, who have trained dogs and cats to communicate by pressing buttons that speak words, told Salon last year that they learned cats can be taught how to link specific words with things they want or need when communicating with humans. The researchers even noted distinctions between how dogs and cats chose to communicate using the button pads for words like “hungry” and “sit.”
“What’s interesting is that they [cats] tend to not do that much in the way of multi-button presses, but there’s like a lot of single-button presses,” cognitive scientist Leo Trottier told Salon. “With cats, you kind of have to find things they really want, and there are just fewer of those than with dogs.”
“These findings bring a new dimension to the consideration of human–cat relationship, as they imply the development of a particular communication into human–cat dyads, that relies upon experience.”
Some of the research into cat-human relationships has yielded unsettling conclusions. An early 2021 study from the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science found that humans have been breeding cats to have faces that look cuter to us but impairs their ability to communicate emotions like pain to each other. That could mean that some cats are unable to communicate when they are in pain.
Research also finds that feline characteristics may have rubbed off on their homo sapient counterparts. For example, a study published last month in the Journal of Marketing revealed that while dog owners tend to respond more to advertising that promotes receiving rewards, cat owners are more likely to be convinced by marketing that emphasizes avoiding risks.
Matthew Rozsa is a professional writer whose work has appeared in multiple national media outlets since 2012 and exclusively at Salon since 2016. He specializes in covering science, health and history, and is particularly passionate about climate change, animal science, disability rights, plastic pollution and the intersections between science and politics. He has interviewed many prominent figures including former President Jimmy Carter, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, animal scientist and activist Temple Grandin, inventor Ernő Rubik, mRNA vaccine pioneer Katalin Karikó, actor George Takei, and right-wing insurrectionist Roger Stone.
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Cats know when you're talking about them: A new study sheds light in the feline mind – Salon
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