According to recently published research, cats may be better at “reading the room” than was previously thought, by studying the behavior of their humans. While feline family members obviously don’t bark or paw at us to get our attention like dogs often do, they seem to have their own methods for soliciting human help.
Interestingly, the researchers found that how cats go about asking for help depends on the behavior of the humans involved. Said another way, cats adjust the way they ask for attention based on the attentional state of the person they’re asking. This discredits the long-held assumption that cats have neither much interest in nor the ability to communicate with their humans.
Hello - Do I Have Your Attention?
For the study, which was conducted by a team of Nestlé Purina researchers, cats were given a puzzle they could solve (an easy-to-reach treat in a container with a loose lid), and an unsolvable puzzle (a treat in a closed container). Also present in the room was either an attentive or inattentive caregiver.
The researchers observed that when the cats were able to easily obtain the treat in the solvable task, they didn’t involve the human. However, when presented with the treat in the closed container, they performed certain behaviors to communicate their conundrum to the human. For example, they would repeatedly look at the treat and then at the person in a bid to get their attention and help.
Even more interesting is that the cats would change up their behaviors depending on how available they perceived the caregiver to be. When the person was looking at them and paying attention, the cats were also more engaged — for example, they looked to the person sooner and approached the treat container more often. When the caregiver wasn’t paying attention, the cats adjusted their behavior accordingly.
These cognitive abilities are considered by scientists to be sophisticated and were thought to be used by dogs, but not cats. “A key part of any relationship is communication, and this study shows that cats are perhaps better communicators than we’ve given them credit for,” said project leader François Martin, MA, PhD. “The more attentive a cat owner is, the more engaged their cat will be in return, making their relationship stronger.”
This may be an important distinction. Whereas many dogs will do “whatever it takes” to get their human’s attention and help if they need it, cats naturally tend to be less assertive. This means that as often as possible, we need to reassure our kitties that we’re present and available to them if they need us.
Having said that, it’s also important to recognize that your cat may choose to ignore you, regardless of how present and reassuring you are!
Cats Prefer to Interact With Us on Their Own Terms
If you happen to have both a dog and a cat in the family, you’ve no doubt noticed the difference in their reactions when you call them by name. If your canine companion isn’t focused on something more interesting (such as eating), chances are she’ll respond almost immediately when you call her because there could be food or a treat involved, a walk, a nice petting session or something equally delightful.
However, when you say your cat’s name, you probably get a distinctly different response or often, no response at all. Does my cat not recognize his name, you may wonder to yourself, or is he simply ignoring me?
A team of university scientists in Tokyo decided to study cats’ ability to understand human voices similar to the way dogs, parrots, apes and dolphins are able to understand certain words. However, compared to those highly social species, “… cats are not so social,” observes lead study author Atsuko Saito, Ph.D., a psychologist at Tokyo’s Sophia University. “Cats interact with us when they want.”
Interestingly, learning more about simple social behaviors in cats such as name recognition may help researchers understand more about how humans became social. According to ScienceDaily - “Both humans and cats have evolved through the process of self-domestication, where the population rewards certain traits that then become increasingly common in future generations.”
Past research with cats has revealed they can read human gestures to find hidden food, recognize their human’s voice, and beg for food when someone looks at them and says their name. According to Saito, these three behaviors suggest cats know their names.
“I think many cat owners feel that cats know their names,” says Saito but until now, there was no scientific evidence to back that up; another frustrating example of worldwide “anecdotal evidence” but no formal study to prove the obvious.
Cats Probably Know Their Names — Even if They Don’t Respond
The Japanese study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, involved 77 cats living in homes and cat cafes (typically tea or coffee shops where customers can interact with the many cats who live there), and four separate experiments conducted over a three-year period. The kitties were from 6 months to 17 years old, of both genders, mostly mixed breeds, mostly spayed or neutered, and all but one lived indoors only.
The researchers recorded their own voices and those of the cats’ owners saying five words — the first four were words that sounded similar to each cat’s name, and the fifth was the actual name. The team also evaluated whether the cats could tell the difference between their own names and those of other cats with whom they lived.
The behavior the researchers were looking for from the cats to indicate they knew their names was no response upon hearing the first four words, and head or ear movement (or rarely, moving their tails or bodies, or vocalizing) upon hearing their own names.
The researchers noted that the cats who had weak responses to similar-sounding words or the names of other cats they lived with were significantly more likely to show a strong response to their own names, even when spoken by someone other than their owner.
Cats living in homes were more likely than cafe cats to distinguish between their own names and the names of cohabitating cats, whereas cafe cats almost always reacted to their own names and those of other cats living there.
Since at cafes the cats’ names are often called together, the researchers theorize it may be more difficult for kitties to associate their own names with positive reinforcement in those environments. According to Saito, cats who didn’t respond to their names may still recognize them. “Their lack of response may be caused by their low motivation level to interact with humans, or their feelings at the time of the experiment,” she said. Saito’s advice to cat parents who want to communicate more with their pets is to “… interact with your cat when she shows that she wants to interact with you.”
Dogs Are Social; Cats Are Independent and Semi-Domesticated
Saito makes the point that unlike cats, dogs “… are literally born to respond to their names.” This is because humans have purposely bred dogs to be obedient and responsive in their interactions with us. Cats, on the other hand, are categorized as semi-domesticated, by the experts. They’re about 20,000 years behind the domestication curve as compared to dogs.
Dogs have other advantages in this arena as well. They’re a highly social species, whereas felines are more independent, sometimes preferring to spend much of their time alone. In addition, one of the first things dogs are taught is their name, and training and socializing dogs is easier because unlike most kitties, they’re motivated by treats and other types of rewards.
It wasn’t that long ago that most cats spent most or all of their time outside. Now that more and more feline family members are living indoors exclusively and spending their days and nights in close contact with humans, it’s possible their ability to interpret and respond to our verbal and physical cues will continue to develop. “Social evolution is an ongoing process,” says Saito, and cats are still evolving.