Big Cats Are Like Pet Cats in One Big Way

Familiar human voices draw longer, more intense responses than unfamiliar ones, researchers show
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 16, 2024 12:40 PM CST
Updated Feb 18, 2024 10:15 AM CST
'Aloof' Big Cats Are Partial to Keepers' Voices
Stock photo of a cheetah.   (Getty Images/Seyms)

Domestic cats can tell their owner's voice apart from other humans, and apparently their larger cousins have that same capability, according to new research out of Michigan's Oakland University. In the study published Thursday in the PeerJ—Life and Environment journal, scientists wanted to see if tigers, cheetahs, snow leopards, and the like are also able to differentiate between familiar humans and strangers, so they took two dozen big cats from 10 different species and exposed them to audio of voices they'd heard before and voices they hadn't.

Sixteen of the cats in the study had been reared by humans, while eight were reared by their mothers—all but two of the sample group were born in captivity. Each cat heard a recording that featured the phrase "Good morning, how are you doing today?" uttered by three unfamiliar humans in a row. The fourth utterance, however, was spoken by a caregiver or other familiar human voice, followed by a fifth spoken once again by an unfamiliar voice. This experiment was then repeated using each big cat's name. The scientists kept tabs on the cats' movements (ear twitches, head pivots, eye shifts, etc.) and vocalizations as they listened to the recordings.

The researchers found that, overall, the cats responded more quickly, and for longer and more dramatically, to the familiar voices than the ones they didn't know. The use of their names in the spoken phrases was negligible. "It is important not to assume that non-group living animals are less equipped to reason about aspects of social behavior or form social bonds," cognitive psychologist Jennifer Vonk, one of the study's co-authors, tells Popular Science. In short, Vonk says, big cats "may not be as aloof and indifferent as they sometimes have the reputation for," per the Guardian. One caveat: As the vast majority of the subjects in this study were born in captivity, it's not clear if the results would replicate using big cats completely from the wild. (More discoveries stories.)

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