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Do Cats Love Us? New Study Findings

Posted January 16, 2014 in A Vet's Life

I recently came across several articles on the web written about a study published in the Animal Cognition journal. According to researchers from Japan designed an experiment to determine whether cats responded to their owner’s voices. The researchers, Atsuko Saito and Kazutaka Shinozuka, concluded that although cats can recognize their owner’s voice, they don’t actively respond to their voice. The results have generated a lot of buzz and many articles have been written around the study; unfortunately, the initial conclusion drawn by these articles is that cats don’t love us! As a life-long cat lover, I felt compelled to write a rebuttal.

The study of vocal recognition in cats
Headlines like, “cats don’t love us” generate an immediate and intense emotional response from cat parents, but because any legitimate rebuttal must begin by first examining the study objectively I must put my emotion aside. The first question I asked myself was, “how did these researchers come to their conclusions?”

They studied 20 domestic cats in their home environment and presented each cat with a recording of their name (or nickname) being called out by 4 strangers and their owner. The cat’s reaction was videotaped and masked observers graded their behaviors.   

The researchers found that cats reacted more strongly when they heard their name called out by their owners. This suggests that cats can distinguish their owner’s voice from strangers. However, they reported that cats did not respond with communicative behavior such as purring. They explained this behavior by suggesting that unlike dogs -- domesticated by humans to obey commands -- cats “domesticated themselves” to hunt rodents living in our grain stores and homes.

I have 4 objections to articles that look at this vocal recognition study and assume cats don't love us

  1. While many articles extrapolate that cats don’t love humans,  the study never attempted to assess whether or not cats love their owners; it simply evaluated a cat’s response to their name being called out. I can illustrate my point by mentioning that I don't think my kids would always respond with “communicative behavior” if they heard their name called out by me, but I still believe they love me.
  2. While voice recordings were intentionally used to standardize the vocal cues and minimize variables, it is reasonable to suspect that a cat’s keen hearing may be able to distinguish a voice recording from the real deal; and

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Ruth has more than 15 years of experience in the veterinary industry as a companion animal veterinarian in private practice. Along with being a writer and media personality, she is also a founding member of IDEXX’s Pet Health Network team.

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The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author's and do not necessarily represent the beliefs, policies or positions of all veterinarians, Pet Health Network, IDEXX Laboratories, Inc. or its affiliates and partner companies.