How Do You Talk to Your Cat?

If you purr and meow at your cat you are not alone.

Posted Aug 06, 2018

Alena Ozerova/Shutterstock
Source: Alena Ozerova/Shutterstock

How often do you meow or purr at your cat? Are you more likely to talk to your cat in “cat” or in “human”? Occasionally I find myself purring back at my cat Lovie, if she has wandered up to say hi to me while I’m working and is busy purring in my direction. Sometimes I’ll give her a little meow, too. Until I read a new study on cat-human interactions, it hadn’t occurred to me to notice that although I “talk” to Lovie using cat sounds, I never talk to my dog Bella using dog vocalizations: I don’t ever bark or growl at Bella. I talk to Bella all the time, but in human language.

Apparently, I am not alone. Many cat owners use cat-like vocalizations when interacting with their feline friends, while people are more likely to talk to their dogs in human-talk, as if their dogs are actually furry people while their cats are, well, just cats. This little tidbit is one of the interesting things I learned from Péter Pongrácz and Julianna Szulamit Szapu’s paper, “The socio-cognitive relationship between cats and humans – Companion cats (Felis catus) as their owners see them,” forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

Pongrácz and Szapu surveyed 157 Hungarian cat owners about their cat-human relationships. The survey was aimed at gaining a more nuanced understanding of how humans and cats interact, raising some of the same questions that have been asked about humans and dogs: What kinds of communications do humans and cats use in their interactions? How well do people seem to understand what their cats are trying to say, and how closely are cats paying attention? How well are owners emotionally matched with their cats, and what kinds of cat and human factors seem to influence how successful the friendship will be?

Cat-lovers generally may be feeling a bit overlooked. Research into the cognitive and social skills of dogs has exploded over the past decade or two, promoting the idea that dogs are the ideal human companion, having co-evolved with us and possessing a whole range of social-cognitive skills that seem directed specifically at communicating with and understanding humans. Dogs read our facial expressions and adjust their expressions to elicit certain emotional responses from us; some dogs are skilled at following human pointing gestures and directional gaze and listening to the inflections in our voice. In our typically myopic way, we have decided that the dog has evolved for us, to become our boon companion. The dog is the uber-pet. But are dogs really the only species to have evolved a special set of socio-cognitive skills to facilitate interactions with humans?

The emerging science of cat cognition offers plenty of evidence that cats have highly developed socio-cognitive skills. Unlike dogs and dog-human interactions, however, which have been extensively studied, much less is known about who cats are, what skills they have developed to understand and communicate with humans, and how to ensure the success of human-cat relationships within the home. Using some of what we’ve learned already about dogs, researchers have begun to explore human-cat communication and the human-directed cognitive capacities of cats. Like dogs, cats may form attachment bonds with owners, follow visual cues (such as their owner pointing toward an object), follow human gaze, and recognize and respond to auditory communication from their owner.

Pongrácz and Szapu offer some ideas about the human-cat relationship, particularly cats’ socio-cognitive abilities. To be precise, the researchers offer cat owners perspectives on what cats do and how they interact. The central question guiding the research was to find which features of the cat-human dynamic paralleled dog-human relationships, and which were exclusive to cat-human interactions. (How accurately cat owners assess cat behavior, how much they know about cat behavior, and what the cats themselves think of their human owners remain questions for future study.) Overall, and not surprisingly, most owners consider their cat a unique and important member of the family and assume their cat to have well-developed social-cognitive skills.

Here are some of the specific findings:

  • Women consider cats to be more empathetic and communicative than men do, and have more intense connections with their cats. (Question for further study: Do women consider their cats to be more empathetic and communicative than men?)
  • Cats were very good at following the visual signals of humans, such as pointing with an arm or gazing in a certain direction. If a cat is the only pet the in household, owners are more likely to use pointing signals with the cat.
  • One of the unique features of the human-cat interaction was the use, by humans, of cat vocalizations. Although many people talk to their dog, and often use a kind of playful baby-talk, dog owners rarely bark and growl at their dog. Yet many cat owners meow and purr to their pets. Younger owners are more likely than older owners to imitate cat vocalizations. Owners who initiate play with their cat more frequently are also more likely to use cat-like vocalizations. (Another question for further study: Do these human-emitted cat vocalizations communicate important information to cats and do they enhance the cat-human relationship? Or do our meows and purrs simply annoy our cats?)
  • Owners who react to the meows of unfamiliar cats are more likely to initiate interactions with their own cat.
  • People with higher levels of education were less likely to use cat vocalizations and more likely to talk to their cat “like a human.” Pongrácz and Szapu hypothesize that people with higher education levels were more likely to “show stronger anthropocentric attitude to their pets,” resulting in less frequent imitation of vocalizations.  
  • Most respondents agreed that it was not easy to assess their cat’s inner state. In particular, people felt uncertain what cats were trying to communicate with their meows, other than that the cat “wants something.” In contrast, people are fairly good at assessing the emotional content of dog vocalizations, especially barks.

I’m glad to see more attention being paid to the inner lives of cats and to the workings of the human-cat interactions. Just as the study of human-dog interactions and dog cognition has the potential to make a significant contribution to dog welfare, so too does research into the human-cat bond bode well for pet cats. The better humans and cats understand each other, the better our chances for successful long-term friendships. This is particularly important for cats, who are more likely than dogs to wind up being relinquished to shelters and whose chances for rehoming are typically less good.

For more on talking to your cat, check out this link, which has some really useful information.

References

Péter Pongrácz, Julianna Szulamit Szapu (in press). The socio-cognitive relationship between cats and humans – Companion cats (Felis catus) as their owners see them. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2018.07.004