Cat meows are so misunderstood

What is the meaning of a cat’s meow that gets louder and louder? Or your pet’s sudden change from purring softly as you stroke his back to biting your hand?

It turns out that these moments of misunderstanding with your cat may be more common than not. a new study A study by French researchers, published last month in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science, found that people were significantly worse at reading the signals of an unhappy cat (almost a third were wrong) than those of a happy cat. (closer to 10 percent).

The study also suggested that a cat’s meows and other vocalizations are largely misinterpreted and that people should consider both vocal and visual cues to try to determine what is going on with their pets.

The researchers drew these findings from responses from 630 online participants; Respondents were volunteers recruited through social media advertisements. They each watched 24 videos of different cat behaviors. One third represented just vocal communication, another third just visual cues, and the rest involved both.

“Some studies have focused on how humans understand cat vocalizations,” said Charlotte de Mouzon, lead author of the study and an expert in feline behavior at Paris Nanterre University. “Other studies looked at how people understand visual cues from cats. But the study of both in communication between humans and cats had never been studied before.”

Cats show a wide range of visual cues: tails that move from side to side or rise into the air; rub and curl around our legs; crouched down; flattened ears or wide open eyes.

Their voices can range from seductive to threatening: meows, purrs, growls, hisses and mews. At last count, kittens were known to use nine different forms of vocalization, while adult cats uttered 16.

That we can better understand what a cat wants using visual and vocal cues may seem obvious. But we know much less than we think.

“We often take for granted our ability to understand the people and animals we are around and live with,” said Monique Udell, director of the Human-Animal Interaction Laboratory at Oregon State University, who was not involved. . in this studio. “This research is worth doing because it shows us that we’re not always accurate and it helps us understand where our blind spots are, that we really benefit from having multiple sources of information.”

And the fact that we’re not very good at detecting signs of animal discontent should not be a surprise, Dr. Udell suggested. “We are more likely to perceive our animals as experiencing positive emotions because we want them to,” he said. “When we see animals, it makes us feel good, and our positive emotional state in response to animals gives us these rose-colored glasses.”

Even some of the most common signs can be misinterpreted.

Purring, for example, is not always a sign of comfort. “Purring can manifest itself under uncomfortable or stressful conditions,” Dr. de Mouzon said. “When a cat is stressed, or even injured, it sometimes purrs.”

These cases are a way to “soothe yourself,” said Kristyn Vitale, an assistant professor of animal health and behavior at Unity Environmental University in Maine, who was not involved in the new study.

The same lack of understanding applies to visual cues in dogs.

“People tend to perceive tail wagging as a really positive thing,” Dr. Udell said. “There are actually many different, subtle signals that can be emitted by the tail. Does the tail move more to the left or to the right? How fast does the tail move? Is it above or below the midline? All of those jokes mean completely different things. Some of them are happy. Some are warning signs prior to aggression. “You can see the whole range just by wagging your tail.”

According to researchers, these studies can help improve not only owners’ personal relationships with their pets, but also animal well-being.

As an example, Dr. de Mouzon pointed to a cat’s habit of suddenly biting. “Over time, when cats communicate and humans don’t understand, the cat just bites,” he said, “because over time they’ve learned that this is the only way to stop something.”

Animal rescue shelters use these findings to educate potential owners. Dr. Udell and Dr. Vitale are evaluating whether cats may be suitable as therapy animals or to help children with developmental differences.

Dr. Udell said such interventions were “increasingly important when we look at mental health, when we look at children who have difficulty bonding with people, when we look at what is now considered the loneliness epidemic.”

He continued: “These are all places where animal companionship can make really big differences.”

And the benefits for improving relationships between pets and their owners can be profound, Dr. Udell said.

“Animals cannot be trusted to be effective companions if their well-being is not taken into account,” he said. “And animal well-being, human well-being and the interactions between the two are closely linked. “If you’re improving the lives of animals, you’re probably providing better outcomes for people, too.”