Your cat recognises your voice and decides whether to respond or not

When you call your cats by their name, do they respond, or just simply yawn and go back to sleep? When they don’t come to you when you call them, have you ever become suspicious that your cats have honed the art of selective hearing? This burning question may have inspired a group of curious researchers to launch a more thorough investigation.

According to The Independent newspaper, a study was recently made by a group of scientists at the University of Tokyo. Researchers involved in the study learned that while cats do recognize our voices, they will only respond to us when they are darned-well ready to do so.

The study was made over a period of 8 months, and was designed to help the scientists learn more about how and when felines respond. Twenty pet cats were evaluated in their homes by the researchers. During the study, the scientists played five recordings for each of the kitties; but only when their guardians were not within sight. The first three recordings had strangers calling the cats by name. The fourth recording was made by the guardian calling the cat and the fifth was made by a different stranger.

The cats’ responses to each of the calls were analyzed by the researchers by observing and measuring their ear, head, tail and paw movements as well as their vocalizations, and pupil dilation. All the cats moved their heads and ears upon hearing their names called to determine from where the sound originated, which demonstrated orientation behavior.

More than half of the cats responded identically to the sound of any voice. Thirty percent moved their ears and 10 percent meowed or moved their tails. However, all the cats showed a greater response upon hearing their guardian’s voice than they did when hearing the voice of a stranger. Interestingly, none of the cats moved in response to any of the voices calling them.

So is it possible that cats didn’t evolve to obey humans? Summing up their findings, the study authors said,

“These results indicate that cats do not actively respond with communicative behavior to owners who are calling them from out of sight, even though they can distinguish their owners’ voices. This cat-owner relationship is in contrast to that with dogs.”

They theorized that the difference in the lack of the cats’ responses was due to the different ways cats and dogs were domesticated. For thousands of years dogs have been bred and trained by humans, whereas cats basically domesticated themselves when they made themselves invaluable to humans as magnificent rodent hunters. According to the researchers,

“Historically speaking, cats, unlike dogs, have not been domesticated to obey humans’ orders. Rather, they seem to take the initiative in human-cat interaction.”

While this results of this study may be fascinating to some people, if this writer’s cats have a justified reason to respond to my voice, whether they can see me or not; they come charging like a herd of elephants, especially when they catch a whiff of a tasty tidbit that I might be offering them.

Cats always have a good reason for any of their behaviors. Don’t you think that it’s up to us to understand them rather than expect them to do our bidding? Tell us your opinion in a comment.


Photo credit Flickr User Niklas

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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

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  • _Note: Cats are very intelligent. They will ignore you if you are indifferent to them.
    Of course they know how to motivate you for their own purpose; but they have already given so much in return and understand more than we think they do. If your cat [ who owns you] will not obey, it could be ill or have other issues depending on it's history.
    _It is also a fact that some of our antics and ideals do not interest them and in their eye's may be viewed as a bit off. Each cat has an individual personality and is a sentient being and All God's creatures WILL go to Heaven when their time comes__just as we will. PLEASE Be considerate and respectful of our animal friends.
    __As for knowing when your cat or dog is not well-you must be vigilant and not overlook anything or take one point of view ; Even if that view comes from your veterinarian. Most vets do not have the additional 3-years of schooling required to administer and diagnose your cats accurately. If you don't believe this than do your research. Vets exist to provide care true, but keep in mind, some are in it to make a profit.After all it is a business. Cats are born with the ability to hide their illness because this is instinctual for them !! An automatic built in survival skill. I have had and cared for them over 20+yrs.
    A few years ago I lost a male 'Maine Coon named Zebediah ' whom I loved dearly. I had no clue he was so in need of professional help until it was too late to save him. He leaves a huge empty space and a few broken hearts *

  • Cats respond if they have a reason to do so. All of our cats come to their name. They always get praised and loved. Sometimes they get a treat. They also are trained to come and find me if the smoke detector goes off. That way if there is ever a true emergency I can get them in hand and get them out of the house. The cats all know their own names and when One cat gets in trouble they know that it is not them unless they hear their name. This is an interesting article. Thanks for sharing.

  • Elizabeth!


    But now that most canned cat foods have pop-off tops, it makes the electric can-opener obsolete.. Just think kittens today will no longer have that exciting "call" to dinner.

  • Well, hrrrumph. I will only say that many times when I call my cats, they go against their self-interest to ignore me, since I am announcing din din. However, generally they remain in close proximity and no call is needed when the sound of One Can Opening is purrceived by pointy little ears.

    • The sound of food being prepared is the best communicator. Perhaps in the study people should have communicated with a similar sound, a sound that mimics the sound of dinner being prepared. Then they will respond actively.

  • I hear-tell that cats only "mew" to humans- not to other cats. I find that a bit strange, since our boys "mew" to each other- and make some other very distinctive calls.

    Do you think that cats also "mew" to other cats? I wonder where and how that research was done to scientifically back up that observation..

    • True. I've never heard my feral Yellow Cat meow within hearing range for me. But I see her "talking" to her companion, Shadow. Also, both their body language is just that...a whole language. I think I understand it. At least some of it.

    • I recall that research. I forget the source. Your example sort of disproves it. I think you'll find that the meow is not universally used for cat to human communication but is generally used for that purpose.

  • I always feel so honored being in the company of cats, because they decided, for whatever reasons, to come in out of the wild and be with us. Their superior intelligence and degree of independence means, IMHO, that it is a conscious decision on their part to engage with us or not, and no one can convince me that the major part of this is simply because they love us and desire our companionship ;)

  • Cats do indeed initiate relationships! and "Researchers involved in the study learned that while cats do recognize our voices, they will only respond to us when they are darned-well ready to do so." Absolutely! Like other intelligent beings, they make the choice based upon a variety of factors, some known to us and many probably not. I observe this all the time with my six beloveds. (I also love the poem!)

    • I had forgotten that: cats initiate communication very often. They developed the meow for that purpose. This indicates that the cat decides when to communicate and decides to respond or not. It may that the cat favors initiating communication in which case this may be a partial reason why he fails to actively respond to sounds from us. Why do cats favour initiating communication (if that is the case)?

  • I love cats for not being yes-men and coming to us when we call, they come if they want to, if they don't want to they see no need to obey a lowly human and certainly don't feel guilty about it. If they're enjoying themselves stalking a mouse they probably just shut us out, or forget us completely, a bit like we do when absorbed on the computer. It was so nice of Walter to come along to meet me today, such a lovely greeting then he walked back beside me, he didn't want to be carried.
    I wonder though what was the point of the research, did we need to know all that, should our cats not keep a little bit of mystery about them?

  • I have 6 cats, and most (the exception being a 19 year old) do come when called. They also recognize (and obey) simple commands like Down down (as in get out of the chair), Up up (onto the bathtub for a drink), and out out (me telling them to get out of the bedroom. They know what "hungry?" means and of course respond to the sound of a can of catfood being opened. If I call them just to come to me, they'll at least answer with a meow, but if they're sleeping in a sunbeam, may not move from their warm spot.

  • Walter and I were in the front garden an hour ago waiting for Babz to come from work, I saw her coming round the corner and lifted Walt up and said 'Here's Babz' and he jumped on the wall and set off at a rate of knots along all the walls, jumping the gates, to meet her!
    So I think cats know our names too, he couldn't have recognised her or her 'scent' from such a distance, could he?

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