Study Shows Your Cat Knows When You’re Talking To Them—Or Even About Them

An adult tabby cat lies on its paw on a blue sofa

While it’s often believed that our feline friends practice selective hearing, the truth is, our cats are always listening to the words that come out of our mouths. And, why is this? Well, because our cats are waiting to hear us talk to them—or about them. New research shows us that cats have the capability to understand when someone is talking to them, or if they are talking to other humans. Let’s take a closer look.

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Cats understand your tone of voice

There has been much debate about whether cats can understand what humans are saying. And, while we can’t know entirely, we do know for sure that cats have the ability to decipher our tone of voice. We know this to be true because cats learn to recognize when certain tones in our voice our used for certain things. For example, our tone of voice when offering a treat to them is a lot different from the tone of voice we use when we want them to get off our new curtains or kitchen counter. Cats have a sharp long-term memory and quickly add these distinct tones to their budding index of human and cat interactions.

Cats know your voice when compared to a stranger’s voice

While Fluffy might respond to their name on the first call, they might not understand exactly what it is you are saying when you speak to them. However, science has shown us through research that cats can differentiate your voice compared to the voice of someone they are unfamiliar with. A study out of Japan shows that in a controlled environment, cats would turn their heads to look when they heard a person speak to them. But when it was their owners speaking to them, they’d differentiate the familiar sound by exhibiting dilated pupils, too. Your cat’s pupils can signal a lot about what they are thinking and feeling. And dilated pupils are a signal of an emotional response in your cat. A stranger saying a cat’s name warrants a more disinterested response versus a cat’s owner saying their name is what research has shown us, in 10 out of 16 cats. The study concluded that: Our results highlight the importance of one-to-one relationships for cats, reinforcing recent literature regarding the ability for cats and humans to form strong bonds.

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Your cat is not as nonchalant as they pretend to be

Remember, your cat–as well as your dog—is opportunistic by nature. That being said, your clingy cat likely hangs around because then they will be that much closer when opportunity strikes. A study out of France taken on exclusively indoor cats shows us that cats clearly know the difference between what is called “cat-directed speech” as well as “human-directed speech.” Authors from the study shared that, “These findings bring a new dimension to the consideration of human–cat relationship, as they imply the development of a particular communication into human–cat dyads, that relies upon experience.”

This study exemplifies the importance of talking to your cat

While you might sometimes feel like a crazy person carrying on conversations with your cat, know that not only is this entirely normal, but it’s also healthy to do so. Our cats rely on us to meet their needs, and cats are very intelligent beings that require daily mental stimulation. And, a great way to offer this enrichment to your cat is through talking! Not only will this strengthen the bond that you share with your cat, but it’s also a great way to engage with them in a way that’s fun.

Another interesting thing that science has recently shown us that might surprise you? Your cat is a fan of baby talk! So, while you might annoy your human counterparts with this Goo Goo Gaa Gaa language, your cat has been shown to respond positively to it. This is because the cat-directed speech that we mentioned above is typically higher pitched, so your cat recognizes this and feels special because they know the language is being directed to them. Your cat will keep their ears peeled for this type of talk and it helps them to know when you’re talking to them, and they also listen for times when you’re talking about them. Which, as we know, most cat owners do often. Kristyn Vitale, a cat behavior scientist at Unity College in Maine, shared with Scientific American, “Although cats have a reputation for ignoring their owners, a growing body of research indicates that cats pay close attention to humans. Cats can very much learn that specific vocalizations have certain meanings.”

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(If you’d like to read the study published in the Animal Cognition Journal in its entirety, you can do so here.)

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