Scientists in France might have found the most effective way to call an unknown cat. The team found that cats living in a cat cafe responded more quickly to a human stranger when the stranger used both vocal and visual cues to get their attention. The cats also seemed to be more stressed when completely ignored by the human.
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The study was carried out by researchers from the Laboratory of Comparative Ethology and Cognition at the University of Paris Nanterre, led by Charlotte de Mouzon. De Mouzon has been studying the ins and outs of cat-human interaction for several years. Last October, for example, she and her team published an article suggesting that domestic cats can easily distinguish their owner’s voice from that of a stranger, and can also often tell when their owner is speaking directly to them.
Much of de Mouzon’s research involved isolating and then studying a particular aspect of cat-human communication, such as vocal signals. While this specificity can make it easier to test a hypothesis, it’s not really how communication between two animals tends to work. We use everything from our voices to our facial expressions to our hands to get a point across to another human being, and the same goes for cat-human conversations.
For this latest investigation, published Wednesday in Animals magazine, I wanted to get a better idea of how cats respond to our different modes of communication, both alone and when intertwined with one another.
“When we communicate with them, what is most important to them? Are they visual cues or vocal cues? That was the initial question of our investigation,” he de Mouzon told Gizmodo.
They recruited the help of 12 cats who lived in a cat cafe. The experimenter (de Mouzon’s own) first got the cats used to his presence. Then he put them through different scenarios. The cats would enter a room, and then de Mouzon would interact with them in one of four ways: he would call to them but not make any gestures to them, such as extending his hand; she gestured at them but didn’t vocalize; she both vocalized and gestured towards them; and, in the fourth control condition, she did neither.
The cats approached de Mouzon faster when he used visual and vocal cues to call them, compared to the control condition, a finding that wasn’t too unexpected. But the team was surprised by the fact that the cats responded faster to visual cues alone than to vocal cues. De Mouzon notes that owners love to adopt a “cat voice” with their pets, so they thought café cats would respond better to vocalizations. They now theorize that this preference might be different for cats interacting with human strangers than it is for their owners.
“You can see that it is not the same. It is not the same for a cat to communicate with its owner as it is to communicate with an unknown human,” she said. “It’s good to have the results you expect. But sometimes it is also good to have results that you do not expect, because it makes you think and formulate new hypotheses that try to get to what is really happening.
Another intriguing finding was that the cats tended to wag their tails more frequently in the vocal cue scenario and more frequently in the control scenario, when they were being completely ignored. Dogs may wag their tails in happiness, but it’s usually the opposite for cats, an indicator of stress or discomfort.
The tail wagging is further evidence that cats are more comfortable with visual or blended cues from human strangers, de Mouzon says. And they can be especially stressed when they are ignored due to the incongruity of the situation. She points out that the cats were placed in a room where they interacted with a human who previously played with them but was now excluding them entirely. Just like humans, cats can also feel uncomfortable when they can’t easily read the intentions of another person in a room.
De Mouzon plans to continue delving into the nuances of the cat-human conversation. She and others are currently working on a study on how owners respond to visual and vocal cues from their cats (notably, cats only meow at humans and not at each other). She also hopes to replicate this study with domestic cats to confirm her suspicions about their different communication styles.
A separate key lesson learned from this research is that Frenchies seem to have their own unique way of getting cats to notice them. The document details that De Mouzon uses “a sort of ‘pff pff’ sound” as his vocal cue, which is apparently widely used by people in France to call cats. When he demonstrated the gesture over Zoom, he sounded like a “kiss” sound, at least to this reporter’s ear. And more importantly, it was subtly different from the “pspsps” sound that is common among English speakers trying to attract a cat.
The exact origins of these whistles may never be clear. But either way, it’s another sign that the relationship and bond between cats and humans is as complex as any.