Catcalls: exotic cats discriminate the voices of familiar caregivers

PeerJ. 2024 Feb 15:12:e16904. doi: 10.7717/peerj.16904. eCollection 2024.


Background: The ability to differentiate familiar from unfamiliar humans has been considered a product of domestication or early experience. 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.

Methods: We tested whether non-domesticated Felidae species recognized familiar human voices by exposing them to audio playbacks of familiar and unfamiliar humans. In a pilot study, we presented seven cats of five species with playbacks of voices that varied in familiarity and use of the cats' names. In the main study, we presented 24 cats of 10 species with unfamiliar and then familiar voice playbacks using a habituation-dishabituation paradigm. We anticipated that human rearing and use of the cats' names would result in greater attention to the voices, as measured by the latency, intensity, and duration of responses regardless of subject sex and subfamily.

Results: Cats responded more quickly and with greater intensity (e.g., full versus partial head turn, both ears moved versus one ear twitching) to the most familiar voice in both studies. They also responded for longer durations to the familiar voice compared to the unfamiliar voices in the main study. Use of the cats' name and rearing history did not significantly impact responding. 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. With cats of all species being commonly housed in human care, it is important to know that they differentiate familiar from unfamiliar human voices.

Keywords: Familiar human; Felid; Rearing history; Vocal discrimination.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Caregivers
  • Felidae*
  • Humans
  • Pilot Projects
  • Recognition, Psychology / physiology
  • Voice* / physiology

Grants and funding

The authors received no funding for this work.