Female Cats, but Not Males, Adjust Responsiveness to Arousal in the Voice of Kittens

BMC Evol Biol. 2016 Aug 12;16(1):157. doi: 10.1186/s12862-016-0718-9.


Background: The infant cry is the most important communicative tool to elicit adaptive parental behaviour. Sex-specific adaptation, linked to parental investment, may have evolutionary shaped the responsiveness to changes in the voice of the infant cries. The emotional content of infant cries may trigger distinctive responsiveness either based on their general arousing properties, being part of a general affect encoding rule, or based on affective perception, linked to parental investment, differing between species. To address this question, we performed playback experiments using infant isolation calls in a species without paternal care, the domestic cat. We used kitten calls recorded in isolation contexts inducing either Low arousal (i.e., isolation only) or High arousal (i.e., additional handling), leading to respective differences in escape response of the kittens. We predicted that only females respond differently to playbacks of Low versus High arousal kitten isolation calls, based on sex-differences in parental investment.

Results: Findings showed sex-specific responsiveness of adult cats listening to kitten isolation calls of different arousal conditions, with only females responding faster towards calls of the High versus the Low arousal condition. Breeding experience of females did not affect the result. Furthermore, female responsiveness correlated with acoustic parameters related to spectral characteristics of the fundamental frequency (F0): Females responded faster to kitten calls with lower F0 at call onset, lower minimum F0 and a steeper slope of the F0.

Conclusions: Our study revealed sex-specific differences in the responsiveness to kitten isolation calls of different arousal conditions independent of female breeding experience. The findings indicated that features of F0 are important to convey the arousal state of an infant. Taken together, the results suggest that differences in parental investment evolutionary shaped responsiveness (auditory sensitivity/ motivation) to infant calls in a sex-specific manner in the domestic cat.

Keywords: Arousal; Domestic cat; Infant cry; Isolation call; Sex-specific responsiveness.

MeSH terms

  • Acoustics
  • Animals
  • Arousal*
  • Cats / physiology*
  • Cats / psychology
  • Female
  • Male
  • Maternal Behavior*
  • Paternal Behavior*
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Social Isolation
  • Vocalization, Animal*