A new study shows that female cats, but not males, respond to kittens’ cries differently depending on the urgency of the calls. The findings are in a paper just published in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology.
Researchers from the Hannover Medical School and the University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover, both in Germany, studied a group of 17 unaltered domestic cats. They first recorded two types of kitten cries, a low arousal call and a high arousal call. The low arousal call was recorded from a kitten that had been temporarily separated from the rest of the litter. The high arousal call was an urgent call from a kitten that had been separated and then briefly handled. These cries were then played back to the adult cats.
The female cats responded faster to the high arousal kitten cries. All of the females responded this way, regardless of whether or not they had previously given birth. The male cats did respond to the kitten cries but showed no difference in response to different types of kitten calls. They seemed to be unable to differentiate between different levels of urgency in the cries.
Male domesticated cats have no family involvement after mating and the mother raises the offspring alone. This would explain the differences in responses to kitten cries. Female cats may have evolved a different auditory system, allowing them to differentiate cries based on urgency. Since even inexperienced non-breeding females responded this way, it appears to be a sex-specific trait and not related to giving birth.
The results of the study show that response to audio cues can differ between sexes when only one sex is responsible for rearing offspring. Female cats responded quickly to urgent kitten cries while males couldn’t differentiate between low and high arousal calls. More research is needed to determine whether or not this changes when the kittens are related to the adults being tested. The researchers would also like to investigate any physical sex-related differences in cat auditory systems.
Wiebke S. Konerding et al. Female cats, but not males, adjust responsiveness to arousal in the voice of kittens. BMC Evolutionary Biology (2016).