Scientists in France may have discovered the best way to approach a cat. A study conducted by researchers at Paris Nanterre University’s Laboratory of Compared Ethology and Cognition found that cats living at a cat café responded more quickly to a human stranger who used vocal and visual cues to get their attention. Furthermore, the cats were also found to be more stressed when the human ignored them completely.
Charlotte de Mouzon, who has been studying cat-human interaction for several years, led the study. In previous research, de Mouzon and her team suggested that pet cats can distinguish their owner’s voice from a stranger’s and often know when their owner is speaking to them directly. However, they wanted to investigate the different modes of communication between cats and humans, both alone and interwoven with each other.
To investigate, they recruited 12 cats living in a cat café. The researcher, de Mouzon herself, got the cats used to her presence before interacting with them in one of four ways: she called out to them but made no gestures, she gestured towards them but didn't vocalize, she both vocalized and gestured towards them, or in the fourth, control condition, she did neither. The cats approached de Mouzon the fastest when she used both vocal and visual cues to get their attention compared to the control condition, which was not unexpected. However, they were surprised to find that the cats responded quicker to the visual cues alone than the vocal cues, which de Mouzon theorizes may be different for cats interacting with their owners.
Interestingly, the study also found that the cats tended to wag their tails more often in the vocal cue scenario and the most in the control scenario when they were being fully ignored. De Mouzon suggests that the tail wagging is further evidence that cats are more comfortable with visual or combined cues from human strangers.
The study provides insight into the nuances of cat-human communication and suggests that it's not the same for a cat to communicate with their owner as it is with an unfamiliar human. De Mouzon plans to continue her research and is currently working on a study of how owners respond to visual and vocal cues from their cats. She also hopes to replicate this study with house cats to confirm her suspicions about their different communication styles.
The findings may also have cultural implications, as the paper details de Mouzon using "a sort of 'pff pff' sound" as her vocal cue, which is apparently widely used by people in France to call cats. This is subtly different from the "pspsps" sound commonly used by English-speakers trying to attract a cat.