Tuesday 9 November 2021

Cat owners are not great at understanding their cats' sounds out of context

A study carried out in 2003 and published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology, probably discovered what we already know but I think it's worth briefly discussing here. 

They wanted to test how well cat owners understood the calls that their cats made. They used experienced cat owners and inexperienced cat owners. They classified domestic cat sounds into two groups: single calls and "bouts of calls". I take the latter to mean the situation when domestic cats produce a series of meows and meow-like sounds. 

Oriental Shorthair meow-honk. Screenshot plus words added.
Oriental Shorthair meow-honk. Screenshot plus words added.

They found that experienced cat owners were better at interpreting feline sounds than inexperienced cat owners, which is to be expected. They also found that there was a better understanding of bouts of calls compared to single calls. 

They also concluded that "classification accuracy was significantly above chance, but modestly so". This, on my interpretation, means that cat owners indicated that they understood their cat's meows but only slightly above a level of pure guesswork. This is why the title to this post is that cat owners are not great at understanding their cat's meow sounds.

ASSOCIATED PAGE: Why do feral cats not meow?

What do we take from this?

Well, I can't read the entire study which would help me because I am only allowed to read the summary. But the big point is this: cat owners interpret their cat's meows in the context in which they are produced. In fact the context is probably more important than the sound. It's the timing of the sound which is the context. 

The timing of meows is part of the routines and rhythms of human-to-cat interactions.

The meow sound is a request, normally. The study scientists refer to this as "negatively toned". They also said that the meows were non-specific. I get that but if you read a meow sound in context the sound is specific.

ASSOCIATED PAGE: What does a purr-meow mean?

So for example if you feed your cat when you get up in the morning and your cat makes a meow sound at that time then you know that your cat is requesting food. And if you let your cat out into the backyard at 4 PM every day through the back door and your cat makes a meow sound at that time then you know that your cat wants to be let out into the backyard! It's about context. Non-specifics become specifics under those situations.

But if you try and read and understand the meow sound out of context it is difficult because you know your cat is requesting something but you won't know what it is unless you put into context. This is because the meow is non-specific. They are all the same out of context.

The study: Classification of domestic cat (Felis catus) vocalizations by naive and experienced human listeners.

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