A lot has been written about the ostensible lack of response by cats to the call of their human caregivers. Well educated cat caregivers know better. News media tends to be a bit lost when it comes to writing about domestic cats. They often write about the findings of studies and misinterpret the report because they don’t know and understand cats.
One issue is that we are for ever comparing cats with dogs. Companion dogs are very responsive to the human voice and call. This is their group living inheritance and desire to follow a leader coming out in their behaviour.
We all know that the root behavioural inheritance of the domestic cat is solitariness. Although domestic cat behaviour, over around 10,000 years of evolution as a human companion, has changed. They’ve become sociable, less solitary as they often live in groups.
A well-documented study from France found that domestic cats respond to the sound of their human caregiver’s voice but not to the voices, using the same call, of strangers. And all cat caregivers put on a ‘cat voice’ when talking to their cat. It can be any sort of voice but is often baby talk because many cat owners relate to their cat as toddlers or little men and women.
The positive response
It does not matter what kind of voice people use as long as it is consistent, melodious and signals friendliness. It is this that cats associate with their owner. Their owner who brings to them all the good things in life. The rewards. That’s why they respond to that particular sound. The sound equates to rewards whereas the same sounds by a stranger do not.
The way your cat responds to a call or conversation to or with your cat depends on the surrounding circumstances.
The classic moment is feeding time. Hungry cats will always come when called by their human caregivers at this time. In fact, cats instigate the interaction and ask for food with a baby-like meow. Interesting that. We speak baby talk to our cat, and she reciprocates with baby-talk.
Cats sometimes learn that they can achieve more if they tune up their meow with a little bit of human baby sound. They can do it with the purr as well.
Perhaps they learn this by observing their owners interact with human babies and discover that human babies get an awful lot of attention. Why not try it myself?
Thus, the first type of response is very positive as the conditions warrant that kind of response.
The negative response
Cats are responsive to the human voice but sometimes we don’t see the response as the cat decides not to respond. You call, but she does not want to respond. Perhaps she is snoozing and does not want to wake up. There is a lack of motivation.
It seems to me that under these low motivation circumstances cats make a decision not to respond to their owner’s call. Cats seem to exercise a choice. This goes beyond the programmed response of the dog to respond and follow their leader. The second type of response is negative as nothing much happens.
The slow-positive response
A third type of response is in between the two. You talk to your cat and perhaps ask her/him to come over and sit down next to you. Your cat is facing away from you and about 10 feet away. No apparent response. It is as if she is blanking you. You talk to her again and still nothing. You give up.
About 3 minutes later she comes over. Sometimes there is a distinct pause in response between calling to your cat and their active response. I call this ‘the processing time’. This is the time taken for your cat to mentally process a request to come.
This may be a simple case of mental cognition. It takes time for a cat to process the call and make the decision to come. I think we have to take into account brain power.
To which can be added: choice. Is it not possible that cats make choices on whether they want to come over on our call? Once again, we are comparing cats with dogs. Dog are programmed by the grey wolf DNA to come on a call. It is instinctive.
Cats are not programmed in the same way and are able to make a choice.