Cats are more responsive when their humans use “baby talk” to address them, a new study claims.
A research team from Paris Nanterre University played a series of recordings for cats. One set of recordings featured a stranger addressing each cat, while another set featured the cat’s human servant calling to the cat.
Each set also had clips in two different tones of voice: one in which the humans spoke to the cats in a tone normally reserved for addressing fellow adults, and another in which they baby-talked their felines.
Not surprisingly the cats were mostly content to ignore the strangers calling them by name even when the strangers used higher-pitched tones, but “displayed a constellation of behaviors suggesting increased attentiveness” when they heard audio of their humans calling them.
The kitties were even more responsive when their humans used the “sing-songy” tone of voice many people reserve for pets, babies, young children and Texans. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself! I’m still salty over my Yankees getting swept by the Astros.)
The research team said the study, which was published today in the journal Animal Cognition, was yet another piece of evidence showing felines are not the ultra-stoic, emotionless animals they’ve been portrayed as for as long as anyone can remember.
“For a long time it has been thought that cats are very independent creatures, only interested in [humans for] eating and shelter, but the fact that they react specifically to their owner, and not just anybody addressing them, supports the idea that they are attached,” said Charlotte de Mouzon, the paper’s lead author. “It brings further evidence to encourage humans to consider cats as sensitive and communicative individuals.”
Although the study included just 16 cats — sample size is a recurring problem in feline-related studies, since researchers often have to travel to the homes of house cats to study their normal behavior — it’s just the latest bit of research on tone in human-cat communication.
As I wrote last year, I don’t use baby talk with Buddy, and I tend to think of him as, well, my little buddy instead of my “child,” as so many “pet parents” do. That’s not to say I think people who view their pets that way are doing it wrong, or that I don’t have parental feelings toward Bud. Of course I do.
But as I also wrote, Buddy does not tolerate baby talk. I joked that he’d paw-smack me if I spoke to him that way, and indeed he has nipped at me and dispensed warning slaps the handful of times I’ve come close to addressing him that way.
I think it’s because of the way I raised him. He’s not accustomed to it, and he finds it annoying. That makes sense, and it comports with the study authors’ suggestions that the one-on-one relationship between feline and human is an important factor in many facets of cat communication.
But maybe if I’m prepared to dodge a few angry paws I can use the threat of baby talk to nudge Buddy toward being more responsive during those times when he doesn’t feel like coming when called or stopping some important work he’s engrossed in, like chattering away at birds outside.
“Bud! Hey, Bud! Listen to me. I’m talking to you,” I might say. “Okay, have it your way. Who’s da little Buddy wuddy who isn’t wistening to me, huh? Who’s da widdle cwanky boy?”
I’m pretty sure he’ll launch himself at me with a derisive “Mrrrrppp!” and take a big swipe. Haha!
But maybe, just maybe, he’ll be more inclined to listen. Do you baby talk your cats?
By chance, one of the first things I saw Tuesday in my post-wake-up browsing was a short video of three guys standing in a triangle formation, each of them with a puppy. A drum recording began, and the men began drumming an overturned pot in the middle with the puppies’ paws.
The dogs, of course, had no idea what was going on. They were confused and stressed. Then I saw this from the official TikTok page of Imperial Point Animal Hospital in Delray Beach, Florida:
It might not be overt abuse. She’s not hitting or screaming at the poor cat. But she’s taking a sentient being with its own feelings, likes and dislikes, comforts and discomforts, and using it as a toy for clicks and likes on social media.
I thought about that when I read the newest study from Nottingham Trent University and the University of Nottingham, which looks at the way people interact with their cats and how their behavior may or may not align with what cats prefer and what they’re comfortable with.
Although Bud and I have a deep bond formed over more than seven years of spending time together, establishing trust, mutual respect and love, he would tear my face off if I did to him what the vet tech is doing to the kitten in the above video.
And you know what? He’d be justified, once he got over the shock and wondered if I’d been replaced with a doppleganger.
The UK study involved more than 100 felines at Battersea Dogs and Cats’ London cattery, with scientists recording interactions between humans and cats via a GoPro camera in a large pen where people can interact with cats one-on-one. There were 120 human participants of various ages and from different walks of life. Each person interacted with three cats separately.
Researchers looked at whether the cat or the human initiated interaction, where the human touched the cat, whether the human restrained the cat, and the cat’s response.
They also collected information on each human participant, such as how many cats they have at home and how long they’ve been caring for felines. Human participants rated themselves on how well they know cats and how well they take care of them.
They used a system that corresponds to the below image to grade physical affection. The image is mostly self-explanatory, but to be clear, the green areas are where cats like to be touched, the yellow areas are “meh,” and the red areas are no-go zones for most cats:
In earlier studies, the team established what many cat caretakers know: Allowing cats to initiate physical interactions, going easier and lighter on petting, letting cats control how long the interactions last, and avoiding any kind of restraint are “best practices” for petting cats. They reaffirmed that scratching cats under the chin, rubbing their cheeks and forehead are “the best ways to increase their affection and reduce aggression.”
That might seem obvious, but in research there’s an important distinction between knowing something (or thinking you know it) and proving it with research. It’s important to prove it, and to forgo assumptions, to produce credible and repeatable experiments.
Animal behaviorist Lauren Finka, lead author on the new study, said although the above may seem like common knowledge among experienced caretakers, that’s not always true, and it’s not always reflected in their behavior.
“Our findings suggest that certain characteristics we might assume would make someone good at interacting with cats—how knowledgeable they say they are, their cat ownership experiences and being older—should not always be considered as reliable indicators of a person’s suitability to adopt certain cats, particularly those with specific handling or behavioral needs,” Finka said.
We should point out here that these are “best practices” for establishing a healthy, trusting relationship with cats, and taking their feelings into consideration. Lots of people might force their cats to do things without much push back, but that doesn’t mean the cat is happy. No one’s perfect, and there are always things we can learn about how to do better by our furry friends.
Finka also said she hopes people who run shelters and rescues take the research into consideration. That’s because some people run into the same problems I did: When you’ve never had a cat, and/or you don’t fit the profile of what people think a “cat person” is or should be, you could encounter resistance or skepticism from shelter staff.
One volunteer at an animal shelter asked me if I was adopting a kitten for my kids or girlfriend, because it didn’t occur to her that I’d want a cat. Some shelters require references from a veterinarian, which you can’t get if you’ve never had a pet before.
“Importantly, within shelters, we should also avoid discriminating against potential adopters with no previous cat ownership experience,” Finka said, “because with the right support, they may make fantastic cat guardians.”
For us, it’s more confirmation of what we’ve always believed: The more you take your cat’s feelings into consideration, and treat the little one with the respect he or she deserves, the happier your cat and the deeper your bond will grow.
We take a break from our regularly-scheduled cats to check in on two remarkable birds: Snowball the incredible dancing cockatoo, and Ruby the infamously foul-mouthed African grey parrot.
Both animals have been the subject of viral videos, but haven’t become ubiquitous memes or the sort of superstar that transcends certain corners of the internet.
Snowball is clearly the more wholesome of the two, and it’s immediately apparent why: He dances.
Actually, that’s underselling it. Snowball doesn’t just dance, he feels the beat and moves with it, timing his dance moves — headbangs, foot-wiggles, side-steps and more — to the music, often the snare like people do. Snowball isn’t the first animal to move to music, but he’s the first animal to groove to music, which is an important distinction.
“His owner had realized that he couldn’t care for the sulfur-crested cockatoo any longer. So in August 2007, he dropped Snowball off at the Bird Lovers Only rescue center in Dyer, Indiana—along with a Backstreet Boys CD, and a tip that the bird loved to dance. Sure enough, when the center’s director, Irena Schulz, played “Everybody,” Snowball “immediately broke out into his headbanging, bad-boy dance,” she recalls. She took a grainy video, uploaded it to YouTube, and sent a link to some bird-enthusiast friends. Within a month, Snowball became a celebrity. When a Tonight Show producer called to arrange an interview, Schulz thought it was a prank.”
Other animals are prompted to motion by music, but they don’t time their motions to the beat. Snowball’s talents have attracted curious neuroscientists, who believe Snowball is able to coordinate his body movements with the rhythm because, like humans, he can process language.
It might seem a little odd that such an ability seems to hinge on language until you realize that language itself is rhythmic, ordered sound, and that human communication often pairs speech with coordinated movements. (Think of people who “talk” with their hands, TV presenters who move their heads for emphasis or the simple act of nodding, shaking your head or shrugging to punctuate a point.)
Scientists study Snowball because he’s inherently fascinating, but also because he can help us understand how birds and humans communicate, and how homo sapiens and certain avian species, out of all the animals on Earth, developed this skill.
Ruby the Foul-Mouthed African Grey Parrot
Ruby is a different case entirely. She’s interesting to internet audiences because she’s hilarious, and if she holds academic appeal, it’s because of the way she’s been socialized and the things she’s learned.
Ruby, one of Youtube’s earliest viral stars, lives with her human, Nick Chapman, in Brighton, UK.
First thing’s first: If you’re put off by obscenities or you’re easily offended, you should take a pass on these videos.
For everyone else, well, it’s not just that Ruby swears. That sort of novelty would wear off quick. What makes Ruby unique — and consistently hilarious — is that she’s inventively obscene, working insults into unique combinations. And, as you’ll see, she swears in French as well as heavily-accented UK English. It’s the latter that often makes for her most amusing outbursts.
“I love you,” Ruby tells Chapman in one video.
“Well that’s a nice change, sweetheart!” Chapman says.
“Bollocks.” Ruby takes a half step to her right on the small platform in front of her cage, turning her head toward Chapman. “You fat bastard!”
Chapman laughs. “I knew that wouldn’t last.”
Ruby’s foul language is unmistakably British and as casually vicious as it gets. She hurls invective at the seagulls who are a constant presence in seaside Brighton and expresses her love for Chapman by insulting him.
“Fuck off, you tw-t!” the bird says, prompting laughter from Chapman.
“Oh dear,” Chapman says. “That’s not nice!”
“Eh,” Ruby says. “Tw-t! You’re not funny.”
“I know I’m not funny. I’m immature, I’m irresponsible. But so what?”
In another video, Chapman tries to engage Ruby by telling her he loves her in French.
Ruby sits motionless for a few long seconds, then utters a single syllable with expert comedic timing: “Tw-t!”
Chapman does a deep belly laugh.
“Shut up, c–t!’ Ruby says. “You f—er!’
“Oh dear,” Chapman says between laughs. “You’re shocking, you know that?”
One thing becomes abundantly clear over the course of just a few videos: Chapman loves Ruby and, despite the constant verbal abuse she directs toward him, she loves Chapman too.
For a man who owns a bird who loves foul language, you’d think Chapman would have a dirty mouth, but for the most part he doesn’t. It’s often impossible to predict what a parrot will pick up on.
Ruby is quick to pick up on new words, and Chapman thinks she likes the harsh sounds of some of the language’s most offensive insults. (Perhaps it’s no mistake that many of the most vulgar words in English have a guttural quality, reflecting their meaning.)
Long before Ruby became a Youtube star, Chapman said he realized the potential for awkwardness. One day he was strolling along the waterfront in Brighton when an older woman stopped to chat and asked about Ruby.
“She’s beautiful,” the woman said, admiring the African grey.
“Shut your c–t!” Ruby snapped back.
The shocked woman looked at Chapman, who pretended he hadn’t heard what his bird said.
The issue of whether parrots understand what they’re saying still hasn’t been settled. Like some other animals — cats and dogs among them — they can understand words in their contextual meanings, though it’s very unlikely a swearing parrot knows precisely what it’s doing.
Then again, to insist parrots are just repeating sounds would be to discount examples like the late Alex, an African grey who could count, distinguish between different items by color and shape, and allegedly innovate to some extent.
Then there’s this video of a parrot telling a cat to “shut the f— up” as the cat meows. It makes me wonder, if I had a parrot, what the bird would pick up from my conversations with Buddy. There’d be a lot of “Hi, Bud!” and “What a good boy!”, and the vast majority of it would be kind, patient and loving, but I won’t pretend there aren’t times when I’ve told him I can’t take any more of his hours-long discourses on teleportation, turkey or unifying classical and quantum physics.
That said, I wouldn’t change a thing about Buddy. He’s my Buddy.
She’s a cute tabby with bright green eyes and an expressive face, but what sets her apart from the thousands of felines on Instagram isn’t her looks — it’s the fact that she communicates with her human using a talking board.
In her videos, the 13-year-old domestic shorthair pads over to a setup on the floor and presses buttons that trigger audio clips of words and short phrases: “Dog,” “Food,” “Tummy,” “All done” and many others.
“I started with a word that I’d really not recommend that you start with, which is ‘food,’ because it becomes very motivating for them. And Billi loves food,” Billi’s human, Kendra Baker, told Salon.
Starting with food “kind of backfired on me,” Baker admitted, “but it definitely got the ball rolling.”
Baker enrolled Billi in an informal online research group called TheyCanTalk comprised of pet owners who try to teach their animals to communicate using talking boards. Ninety five percent of the animals involved in the program are dogs, but TheyCanTalk founder Leo Trottier, a cognitive scientist, told Salon he was “pleasantly surprised” when people began signing their cats up as “learners.”
He’s not the only professional keeping tabs on the progress of felines using talking boards.
“I’m very intrigued by the cats that are using the boards, because there’s really a dearth in cat cognition studies, particularly those that happen in the home,” cognitive scientist Gabriella Smith said. “Cats are really kind of overlooked in the companion animal cognition world. I’ve been a big fan of Billi, and my animal cognition scientist brain just lights up because I see these behaviors that I know from my own cat — but now I’m able to look at it from a cognition lens.”
We had fun with the idea here on the blog exactly one year ago when we wrote about Kristiina Wilson, an animal behaviorist who battled the boredom of lockdown by constructing a DIY talking board for her cat, who is naturally communicative and “very clear about his needs and wants” even without the board.
We imagined Buddy taking to a talking board with gusto, sparking an arms race in which he rapidly educates himself, expands his talking board, hooks it up to the internet and builds himself a prosthetic opposable thumb as part of his evil plans to take over the world.
Watching clips of Baker’s cat, Billi, I really want to believe she’s learning rudimentary language, and that I’m seeing a cat pause thoughtfully after her human poses a question, thinking over her answer before deliberately pressing a button of her choosing. I want to believe our cats can process words and simple phrases, even if syntax is beyond them. I’d like to believe my cat, like Billi, would tap out a plea for me to stay at home and hang out instead of running out to do errands.
But I don’t.
There are a few things that stretch credibility as far as the videos go, starting with the fact that Billi’s communication array has more than 50 buttons and many of them represent abstract concepts like “before,” “want,” and “later” as well as mental states or reactions like “mad” and “ouch.”
At times Baker reminds me of Penny Patterson, the animal psychologist famous for teaching Koko the gorilla to “use” sign language. There are plenty of videos of Koko throughout the years on Youtube and one constant, as different visitors, celebrities and kittens interact with her, is Patterson’s trinary role as surrogate mother, scientist and interpreter.
Koko would sign a seemingly random assortment of words, and Patterson would explain to her befuddled guests that “play nipple eat” meant Koko wanted to play, examine their nipples, and then have lunch. (Koko was obsessed with nipples for unknown reasons, to the point where media reports described her obsession as a “fetish.” It even resulted in a lawsuit in which two female employees claimed Patterson threatened to fire them if they “did not indulge Koko’s nipple fetish” and expose their breasts to the gorilla. The parties eventually settled for an undisclosed sum.)
Koko’s communications were filtered through Patterson, and her antics — whether pretending to blow her nose, feeding her kitten or signing — were done at the behest, and urging of, Patterson.
Likewise, Baker praises Billi like any loving cat caretaker would do, but does a lot of interpreting. Billi hits the button for “bird” after sundown and Baker compliments the tabby on her ability to peer into the dark outside. Then Billi pads back over to her board and presses a button for “before,” and Baker decides her cat isn’t saying she sees a bird out there now, but that she saw one earlier in the day.
When Billi presses the buttons for “mom” and “settle,” Baker interprets it as a request to lay down and cuddle. But the buttons are right next to each other, and Billi doesn’t so much press them as she stands on them the way cats do when they rest their front paws on a surface.
When Baker prompts Billi to look for her toy mouse, she presses the buttons for “where,” “mousey” and “hmmm?” Billi looks around, scratches herself for a few seconds and looks around some more before Baker picks up the toy and gives it to her. Then Baker tries again, pressing the buttons in the same order.
Billi idles, glances at Baker and finally pads over to her toy. Baker sees it as confirmation that her cat understood the words, was able to string them together, understood the sequence was a request for information, and responded appropriately.
It’s a fun informal experiment, it’s neat to see a cat using a talking board, but I think there’s a significant burden of proof for anyone claiming it qualifies as science. Even the seemingly straightforward words and phrases — “food,” “catnip” and “love you” — are more likely conditioning than understanding.
Is Billi really saying she loves Baker when she presses the button for “love you,” or has she learned that pressing that particular button always rewards acknowledgment and attention? Does Billi know “love” corresponds to the feelings of affection she has for Baker? Does Billi understand that “food” means food, or does she know pressing that button results in Baker giving her a tasty snack?
Those of us in the audience aren’t watching in real time. Videos of Billi, like videos of “talking dogs” like Bunny the sheepadoodle, are heavily edited. Long stretches of inactivity are clipped or condensed. While almost all online influencers (Bunny has a million followers on Instagram alone) make heavy use of edits to satisfy the short attention spans of their viewers, communication has a crucial temporal context. There’s a chasm of difference between someone answering a question with “no” within a second, and an animal pressing a “no” button after three minutes have passed.
The videos also constitute editing by omission. Instagrammers who upload videos of their pets using talking boards are choosing the best ones, those that confirm their belief that their cats and dogs are genuinely learning human language. We don’t see the footage of pets banging on buttons randomly or activating them accidentally as they walk over the talking boards.
That’s not to say Billi doesn’t experience the emotions associated with her talking board buttons. Behaviorism fell out of favor in 1959 with the advent of the cognitive revolution, and experiments in recent years have removed any lingering doubt behaviorist diehards may have had about animals.
Animals think and feel
Our furry friends experience the full range of primary and secondary emotions. They feel pain, depression, excitement and joy just as acutely as humans do, and well-designed experiments — like the neurologist Gregory Berns training dogs to sit still in fMRI machines so their brains can be scanned — have confirmed animals have internal thought processes and rich cognitive lives. (Like all good science, Berns’ work is repeatable.)
The question isn’t whether animals think and feel, it’s whether we’re expecting them to do something they aren’t meant to do — and anthropomorphizing them in the process — by pushing them to learn human language.
They already meet us halfway, and in the case of cats in particular, more than halfway: The little ones communicate by scent and body language, but they’re smart enough to realize we humans are hopeless at learning those subtle languages, so when they communicate with us, they vocalize as we do.
We know that even great apes, our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, and dogs — who were the first animals to be domesticated and are born with the ability to parse human facial expressions — can’t get a handle on human language.
With Koko’s passing in 2018, the sun has set on the age of primate language experiments partly because funding has dried up, partly because the undertaking involves becoming a parent in a very real sense to an animal that can live for half a century or more, and mostly because it turns out gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos weren’t really learning language at all.
Nim with Bill Tynan and Joyce Butler.
Nim Chimpsky as a baby.
Nim and Joyce Butler, working on communication.
Herbert Terrace, the scientist behind the infamous “Nim Chimpsky” experiment of the 1970s, set out to prove behaviorist B.F. Skinner right — and linguist Noam Chomsky wrong — and ended up admitting failure in a book that explains how he came to realize ape language experiments were unintentional exercises in the Clever Hans Phenomenon.
“Careful examination of videotapes revealed that the human trainers had inadvertently been cuing the chimp in advance of his signing,” the Wall Street Journal wrote of the Chimsky experiment. “To Mr. Terrace’s great credit, he acknowledged his error, and then went on to discover similar mistakes had been made in most—perhaps all—prior and subsequent claims of apes acquiring human-type language. He has, to some extent, been actively engaged as an animal-language myth-buster ever since.”
The horse who changed science
If a horse can pick up on unintentional body language cues, and fool tens of thousands of people into believing it can answer questions and perform calculations as a result, then it’s a certainty that primates and cats — our closest genetic relatives and domesticated animals who live with us as members of our family, respectively — can easily pick up on cues, especially when there are rewards involved.
“Clever Hans was hailed as the first and most famous ‘thinking’ animal,” the authors of a 2013 paper on the phenomenon wrote. “Except a few skeptics, the majority of biologists, psychologists, and medical doctors, experts of all kind, and laymen were rather convinced by this example that animals are able to think in a human way and to express human ideas in non-verbal human language. In 1904, the German board of education even set up a commission to determine if the claims made about Hans were genuine. After an extended period—a year and a half of study—they concluded that there was no hoax involved.”
Clever Hans fooled lay people, scientists and animal behaviorists alike until finally, “by the meticulous examination of Professor Oscar Pfungst, a biologist and psychologist,” Pfungst realized Hans couldn’t answer correctly if the person asking him the question did not know the answer either.
In other words, Hans was reading the answers off the faces and via the body language of the people around him. In the end it turned out Hans wasn’t a math genius or a connoisseur of the arts, but he was clever. Hans showed the world just how closely attuned animals can be to human behavior.
The fact that a horse, and not a primate or a dog, revealed such an ability reflects the thousands of years horses have been taking subtle cues from their trainers and riders. An experienced horse can determine a rider’s intent by the slightest tension on the reins or shift in weight.
In fact, it was the Clever Hans Phenomenon that led to innovations like double blind studies and forced scientists to really think about how they design their studies, as even the most careful and well intentioned researcher can unconsciously convey information to study participants. When we’re close to our subjects, as pet caretakers are, it’s almost a guarantee that we’re giving our pets cues without awareness of what we’re doing.
Animals like cats and dogs may not think like people do — and it’s a mistake to expect that of them — but that doesn’t mean they’re not experts at gleaning information from our body language, facial expressions and tone of voice. In fact, that’s their natural way of communicating information.
Even though I can’t bring myself to believe Billi, or any other cat, is learning to use human language, there’s value because failure tells us just as much as success does. Any attempt to better understand cats is a worthy pursuit.
Regardless, it’s clear Billi likes pressing the buttons on her talking board, and the entire exercise is a stimulating game for her. Cats may not have the ability to use human language, but they do like to play, and they like anything that results in interaction and attention.
Maybe that’s the most important takeaway.
“I really believe that the majority of house cats are bored and depressed,” Baker said. “We don’t give them any stimulation . . . and if this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that staying inside your house all day is terrible. So you know, anything that we can do for them that gives them a better life, I’m for it.”
All photos credit Wikimedia Commons and Pexels unless otherwise noted.
You have to feel sorry for the people still stuck in the Zuckerbergian cesspit that is Facebook, spending their days wading through tedious political arguments and “SHARE IF U AGREE” shitposts written for the paste-eating crowd.
Unfortunately, the platform’s rampant misinformation is not limited to politics. Here’s one of the latest viral posts:
And this is what it looks like now, to protect people like your aunt who keeps sending you email forwards about Pizzagate:
Whenever I encounter stuff like this, my first instinct is to dismiss it as nonsense no one would actually believe. Then I remember our dubious track record when it comes to critical thinking: a third of millennials are flat-Earthers, one in four Americans thinks the sun orbits the Earth, and more than 16 million Americans believe chocolate milk comes from brown cows.
Some futurists and ethicists thought the world wide web would bring an end to conspiracy theories and outlandish beliefs, with the sum of human knowledge at our fingertips and the disinfectant power of the truth. But falsehoods have remarkable staying power, and the internet is happy to oblige any conspiracy theory no matter how far removed from reality, with sites like this one that says it offers “no-bullshit truth”:
So at the risk of stating the obvious, purring has nothing to do with a cat’s heartbeat, and cats experience all the same primary emotions we do (happiness, sadness, fear, excitement, nervousness) as well as quite a few secondary emotions, like jealousy, disappointment, contentment and confidence.
The idea that animals like cats and dogs are emotionless automatons went out of favor more than half a century ago, and modern technology has made it possible for scientists to peer into the minds of our domesticated friends and witness brain activity that mirrors our own when we process emotions. There is no debate: Cats have very real emotions, which is another compelling reason to treat them well.
Feline humor, news and stories about the ongoing adventures of Buddy the Cat.