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When You Talk to Your Pets, This Is How They Talk Back

Cats "talk" to us, even if they don't to each other.

Key points

  • Humans talk to domesticated pets using language similar to the speech used with human infants.
  • Pets recognize and respond to the speech we humans use and respond with cues of their own.
  • Dogs and cats, for instance, have different ways of communicating their needs to humans through smell, touch, vision, and sound.
 Barbara Blatchley
My cat Isis, patiently waiting while I figure out what she needs.
Source: Barbara Blatchley

Such a pretty kitty!

Pet owners around the world talk to their pets. In fact, we tend to talk to our pets as if they understood what we were saying and as if they were human beings. And not just any other human being, but a very young human being at that.

When we talk to infants, we tend to use a specialized speech pattern. Speech with babies features high-frequency sounds, exaggerated vowels and exaggerated intonation in general, and lots of emotion and repetition. This infant-directed speech pattern (IDS, also known as “baby talk”) helps children learn the language as well as learn to bond with adult caregivers.

However, we also tend to talk this way with our pets (pet-directed speech, or PDS). Dogs and cats are not going to produce speech or talk to us using language—ever. So why do we do this?

IDS and PDS are not exactly the same. Speech directed at the family pet lacks exaggerated and drawn-out vowels but retains the high fundamental frequencies of sound, exaggerated emotion, and repetition. Interestingly, if we talk with parrots, a pet who can produce speech and will talk back to us, we include that hyper-exaggeration of the vowels. So, we’re matching the speech we produce to fit the language capabilities of the organism with which we’re communicating.

Dogs vs. Cats: The Eternal Struggle

Dogs were domesticated almost 15,000 years ago, while cats joined our households more recently (only about 10,000 years ago). Dogs are pack animals, living together in social groups, and were welcomed into the human family home because of their ability to hunt cooperatively with other dogs and with humans.

Cats, on the other hand, are notoriously asocial. In the wild, adult cats tend to live and hunt separately from other cats. They were domesticated because the service they provided, hunting rodents and other pests, could be done without humans—on their own, as they would naturally hunt in the wild.

Social animals like humans and dogs make good use of sounds to communicate, but that communication is supplemented by smell, touch, and vision. A review of human-pet communication studies (Koyasu, Kikusui, Takagi, and Nagasawa, 2020) shows some interesting similarities and differences in the ways that humans, cats, and dogs communicate.

Dogs and humans trade gazes at important objects in the world, looking at the object, then the dog or human, then back at the object to convey the appropriate message. That shared gaze elicits the secretion of oxytocin in the human owners, suggesting the formation of a social bond between the two.

 Ibram Gaunt/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0
Mixed breed (mutt) similar to our family pet "Petunia" from way back in my childhood.
Source: Ibram Gaunt/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Cats don’t tend to alternate their gazes with their owners as much as dogs do, perhaps because cats didn’t need to do so on a solitary hunt in the wild. In fact, cats will avoid the gaze of humans much as they avoid the gaze of another cat. It may be that cats understand a direct gaze as a sign of a social threat and so tend to avoid it.

Cats use a special kind of gaze called the “slow blink” to bond with their humans. A slow blink is exactly what it sounds like—a slow, somewhat exaggerated closing and opening of the eyes. If you slow blink at your cat and she slow blinks back, she is probably indicating that she likes you or at least that she feels calm and relaxed in your presence.

Both cats and dogs will use touch to communicate. Dogs and cats respond to the emotional state of a familiar human with increased touch, and cats will use a gentle head-butt to mark you as their human with a pheromone, to bond with you, or to signal that they want attention (you can head-butt back, but be warned, not all cats like this). Both dogs and cats use odor markers to delineate their territory and to identify who has been traveling through their space.

And, of course, both dogs and cats use sound to communicate with human beings. Dogs use different barks to communicate different things, and humans, whether they are dog owners or not, were able to distinguish an aggressive bark from a fearful or a playful one (Pongrácz, Molnár, Miklósi, and Csányi, 2005).

Cats don’t normally vocalize to other cats in the wild, but domesticated cats will use sound with humans. McComb, Taylor, Wilson, and Charlton (2009) found that domesticated cats will vocalize using a specialized solicitation cry to get something they need from humans (usually food). There is a high-frequency component in the solicitation of food sound that matches the frequency of a human infant distress call. Removal of this component makes the cat’s solicitation call sound less urgent to human listeners, even if they have no experience owning or caring for cats.

Humans also tend to evaluate the solicitation purr as less pleasant to listen to than purrs emitted in other situations and harder to habituate to as well as harder to ignore. McComb et al. proposed that cat solicitation purrs exploited a natural human sensory bias, making us more sensitive to this kind of cry. And if you meow back at your cat, he will increase his vocalizations to you.

And, finally, a recent study of cat communication (de Mouzon, Gonthier, and Leboucher, 2022) found that cats can distinguish between speech directed at them and speech directed to other adult human beings, but only if the speaker is their owner. When listening to strangers, the cats did not discriminate between human- and cat-directed speech. This suggests that this is a learned behavior and is dependent on experience.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Magui RF/Shutterstock

References

De Mouzon, C., Gonthier, M., and Lebourcher, G. (2022). Discrimination of cat-directed speech from human-directed speech in a population of indoor companion cats (Felis catus). Animal Cognition, doi.org/10.1007/s10071-022-01674-w

Koyasu,H. Kikusui, T., Takagi, S., and Nagasawa, M. (2020). The gaze communications between dogs/cats and humans: Recent research review and future directions. Frontiers in Psychology, 11:613512. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.613512

McComb, K., Taylor, A.M., Wilson, C., and Charlton, B.D. (2009). The cry embedded within the purr. Current Biology, 19(13). R508

Pongrácz, P., Molnár, C., Miklósi, Á., & Csányi, V. (2005). Human listeners are able to classify dog (Canis familiaris) barks recorded in different situations. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 119(2), 136–144. https://doi.org/10.1037/0735-7036.119.2.136

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