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A fascinating new Swedish research project is looking at gaining a better understanding of human-cat communications by analyzing how voice, melody (intonation) and speaking style – in human speech as well as in cat vocalizations – influence the communication between cats and humans.

Researchers from the universities of Lund and Linköpin will look at these parameters in human speech addressed to cats, and in cat sounds addressed to humans. The results may have profound implications for how we communicate with cats in our homes, in service care facilities, animal hospitals and shelters. Researchers hope that the results will lead to better communication between cats and humans, and to better quality of life for cats.

How do cats vary sound to convey different messages?

The research team includes Associate Professor of Phonetics Susanne Schötz, Associate Professor in Computational Linguistics Robert Eklund, PhD., and Associate Professor of General Linguistics Joost van DeWeijer. The study will include 30 to 40 cats. It will be conducted in the cats’ natural home environment to minimize stress. “This means that we will visit the cats’ homes and then leave a video camera for about a week in every home,” said Susanne Schötz. “We want the cats’ human companions to use the camera in situations when the cats normally communicate using sound, for example when they’re seeking attention or soliciting food, or when they want to be let outside.”

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Cats in the study will also have small video cameras with a built in microphone attached to their collars in order to record cat sounds at close range and to get additional information from the cats’ perspective about the situation where the vocalization was made.

Researchers are specifically interested in the melody (or intonation) of cat sounds and cat-directed human speech. “We found in earlier pilot studies that cats do vary the melody in their vocalizations to a much larger extent than we first expected,” says Schötz. “It seems that they do so consciously, for instance, to convey a certain message, or to emphasize or alter a message in certain ways to signal a higher degree of urgency (“I am REALLY hungry!”).

Do cats and humans imitate each others’ sounds?

Researchers also found that cats and their human companions seem to imitate the melody of each others sounds – something that I’m sure most of us can relate to. I know I occasionally talk to Allegra and Ruby in a different tone of voice at times than what would use to talk to humans. “We wanted to learn more about the nature of this variation in melody,” adds Schötz. “Do some types of melodies or tonal patterns occur more frequently in certain situations or when the cats seem to convey certain emotions or desires? Do cats have different ‘dialects’ according to breed, or the dialect (or language) spoken by the humans around them? How do humans perceive the variation in cat melody? And how do cats perceive the melody in human speech? Do they prefer a certain speaking style or tone of voice? How do they react to adult-directed speech as opposed to pet-directed speech?”

Pilot studies are currently taking place to test different methods and types of recording equipment. Researchers hope to begin the actual study during September 2016. First results will be published in 2017.

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I cannot wait to hear about the results of this study. I will, of course, share them with you here on The Conscious Cat as soon as they become available.

For more about the study, please visit Meowsic’s website.

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10 Comments on Meowsic: Study Seeks to Understand Human-Cat Communication By Analyzing Cat Sounds

  1. My Blazer was a good communicator. He would let me know vocally when he was hungry.But he would also question me when i would return from a business trip. The pitch and tone was entirely different between the two

  2. My cat uses a wider variety of sounds as time goes on. She was a quiet kitten, but now at age 11, she is quite vocal. The newest sound I’ve noticed her making is when we are napping together and I start to get up, but she doesn’t want to yet. She makes a low guttural sound that sounds so much like the moan/whine/grunt I make when I don’t want to get up in the morning! I also read this as her not wanting me to take my warm body away from hers, and general annoyance at being disturbed. Also just in the past few years she will make a similar sound but mixed with purring when I stop scratching her head and neck. Eye contact is involved in these instances as well.

    The mimicking to communicate really is amazing. Our kitties are so much smarter and more intuitive than the mainstream gives them credit for.

  3. My Zoe has been vocalizing at night since her brother, Cholla died 3 years ago. It actually sounds like she’s taking. Not the usual meows or chatter. It starts as we are getting ready for bed. I assume it’s some kind of anxiety from knowing she will be alone overnight. Even though I leave the bedroom door open and she knows she can come sleep on the bed with us, and sometimes does for a while, she will still cry outside the door! Or complain, or whatever it is she does! She gets tons of loving through the day and evening. I’m concerned, but I don’t know what to do. 🙁

  4. I will be curious of the findings from this study. Both Stella and Tony will begin to speak when they are alone in a room for no apparent reason. They can go on for about 2-3 minutes quite loudly. Stella also speaks often throughout the day. Fusco is fairly quiet and poor Frank has no voice. Interestingly, Frank and Fusco are also the most timid and both run and hide whenever we have visitors. The talkers, Stella and Tony, are quite social.
    Cats……such amazing creatures!

  5. This is so interesting! My sweet Bibi is a very vocal cat. She has a huge range of sounds. I also talk to her in a different voice. My previous cat Snoes was very sensitive to sound. If I used a very sweet and high voice, she’d start to purr. She wouldn’t let me touch her in the beginning, but I could show affection using sound and she’d react.

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