Charlotte de Mouzon discusses human interactions with cats

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From sleeping in improbably small cardboard boxes to standing outside the backdoor and then deciding not to come in, their behaviour has fascinated countless generations of pet owners. But despite their outwardly mysterious ways, scientist Charlotte de Mouzon considers it a mistake to call our feline friends unpredictable – and believes instead, people just have to become better listeners.

Ms de Mouzon, who as an ethologist specialises in animal behaviour, is the lead author of a new study published in the scientific journal “Animal Cognition” entitled, “Cat got your tongue: Cats distinguish between speech directed at them and humans”.

The report, based on a total of 16 moggies, indicates that cats can tell when their owners are talking to them, as opposed to when they are talking to other people.

Additionally, the team concludes that cats are less likely to react to the voices of strangers when directed towards them.

Speaking to via videolink, Ms de Mouzon said comparatively little is known about cat behaviour and communication, despite the fact that they have lived alongside humans for thousands of years.

In contrast with dogs, who were always eager to please, cat motivation was trickier to fathom and more “subtle”, Ms de Mouzon explained.

She added: “It’s not that they are unpredictable.

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“It’s just that we are not good at predicting their behaviour.”

Broadly speaking, the study compared the responses of the participating cats when played recordings of phrases spoken by their owner and by a stranger.

Owners were also asked to record the same phrases in adult-directed speech (in other words, as if talking to another human) and cat-directed speech (as if talking to their furry friend).

In order to gauge their reactions, Ms de Mouzon devised a scoring system going from zero to 20, based on the strength of a cat’s response – for instance, turning their heads towards the sound, or stopping their grooming activities.

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Animal Cognition: Cat takes part in audio study

When played a recording of their owners’ voices speaking in a cat-directed tone”, the average reaction spiked to 14 – suggesting they recognised them.

Interestingly, the research found no difference in reaction when the stranger was speaking in a cat-directed tone and an adult-directed tone.

Ms de Mouzon said she embarked on her study partly out of frustration at the lack of research compared with the multiple studies about dog communication.

Her research reinforced her belief that cats march to the beat of a different drum to their canine friends (and sometimes rivals).

And it also underlined the old adage of never working with children or animals, Ms de Mouzon admitted.

She joked: “I do like cats. During my PhD I thought maybe I would stop liking cats.

“Because they never do what you expect them to do!

“But I do love them and I think we still have a lot to learn about them.”

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