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Wild or Domesticated, Cats Know the Voices of Their Caretakers

As it turns out, cats “get” your tongue, whether they’re lions, leopards, or house cats.

By Sam Walters
Feb 15, 2024 2:30 PMFeb 15, 2024 2:22 PM
A picture of a Javan leopard.
Leopards were one of 10 species involved in the new study, which found that undomesticated cats in captivity can recognize caretakers’ voices. (Credit: Abxyz/Shutterstock)


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They might not come when you call them, but recent research reveals that cats recognize the voices of their caretakers — not thanks to their domestication, but thanks, instead, to their proximity to people.

Published in PeerJ Life & Environment, the research found that captive, undomesticated cats respond to the voices of their caretakers much more quickly and much more intensely when their caretakers are more familiar. Felines as ferocious as tigers, cougars, and cheetahs could tell people apart, and weren't afraid to pick favorites.

According to the authors of the research, the results challenge the traditional conception of cats as socially aloof, and suggest that some species — whether considered social or asocial — acquire the ability to recognize people’s voices as a result of close contact, rather than domestication.

Read More: 10 Things You Have Always Wanted to Know About Cats

Can Domesticated Cats Recognize Caretakers’ Voices?

The ability of animals, and of domesticated animals in particular, to discern people’s voices is an area of significant scientific interest. And it’s no wonder why: Who wouldn’t want to know whether their cat recognizes the sound of their voice?

In 2013, for instance, a study in Animal Cognition concluded that domesticated cats use vocal cues to distinguish between people. And in 2019, a study in Scientific Reports came to the same conclusion, adding that the creatures also use vocal cues to distinguish between people’s utterances.

Specifically, the research revealed that domesticated cats draw distinctions between their names and other words. And another study from Animal Cognition found in 2022 that cat-directed words about food and play — and about instances of separation and reunion with owners — prompt responses in cats when spoken only by cats’ owners.

Read More: How Do Cats Recognize Their Owners?

Can Undomesticated Cats Recognize Caretakers’ Voices?

With such solid research on the scope of vocal recognition in domesticated cats, their ability to differentiate between familiar and unfamiliar people based on people’s voices was deemed a product of their domestication. While domesticated cats clearly possessed a range of recognition abilities, it was assumed that undomesticated cats possessed few or none, with the Felidae’s vocal skills slipping to the wayside.

Few studies have focused on voice recognition in Felidae despite the fact that this family presents the rare opportunity to compare domesticated species to their wild counterparts and to examine the role of human rearing,” the researchers reported in their PeerJ study. “If wild cats share with domestic cats the ability to differentiate human voices, this would suggest that this ability is not dependent on domestication or human rearing.”

Deciding to determine, once and for all, whether wild cats in captivity discern the voices of their caretakers, the team behind the PeerJ study devised a series of tests. According to the team, the positive results of their tests — which involved an assembly of tigers, lions, leopards, lynxes, cougars, cheetahs, and servals, among others — indicate that vocal recognition is not a skill dependent on domestication.

“These findings suggest that close human contact rather than domestication is associated with the ability to discriminate between human voices and that less social species may have socio-cognitive abilities akin to those of more gregarious species,” the researchers reported in their study.

Read More: Why Do Cats Love Boxes So Much?

Recognizing Vocal Recognition in Wild Cats

Selecting 25 cats from various species and introducing them to audio recordings of voices that varied in familiarity, the researchers found various signs of voice recognition. Cats responded more quickly and more intensely to more familiar voices in comparison to less familiar voices, and for more time, regardless of the recordings’ use of names or of the animal’s history with human rearing.

“Non-group-living animals can exhibit social cognitive abilities,” said Jennifer Vonk, a study author and a comparative and cognitive psychologist at Oakland University in Michigan, in a press release. “So we should not neglect the study of social cognition in less highly social species.”

According to the team, the study could contribute to shifting welfare standards for all species of cats, whether they are domesticated or undomesticated, tame or wild.

Read More: How Long Can Cats Be Left Alone? What Is Best for Them?

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