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13/08/2016, 12:00

Mother knows best: Female cats respond faster than male cats to the cries of distressed kittens

The sound of a kitten in distress is something that would melt most people's hearts.

But cats have evolved the ability to decipher the emotions behind each adorable whimper.

Female cats are so attuned to the sound of an upset kitten that they respond faster to those who are in greater need.

The sound of a kitten in distress is something that would melt most people's hearts, but cats have evolved the ability to decipher the emotions behind each adorable whimper

While males, on the other hand, do not adjust their reaction depending on the urgency of the noise, a new study has found.

Female domestic cats adjust their response to kitten calls depending on how urgent they sound, according to the study published in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology.

This trait was found to be independent of whether the females had experience raising their own kittens, the researchers at Hannover Medical School and the University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover, Germany found.

Female domestic cats adjust their response to kitten calls depending on how urgent they sound, according to the study. This trait was found to be independent of whether the females had experience raising their own kittens

HOW THE STUDY WORKED

To assess how the male or female sex of adult cats and the high or low arousal conveyed by kitten calls affected the adults' response times, the researchers used 14 calls from seven kittens – four males and three females, nine to 11 days of age – recorded in two different contexts.

The first was low arousal, in which a kitten was spatially separated from its mother and siblings for three minutes and left undisturbed. 

The second was high arousal, in which a kitten was taken out of the nest box for three minutes lifted off the ground and turned on its back.

The researchers also performed acoustic analyses for the 14 selected kitten calls to confirm the previously found acoustic differences. 

The recorded calls were played to 17 adult cats – nine males and eight females, aged one to eight years. To control for experience, half of the females had not previously raised kittens. 

'Surprisingly, male and female cats did not differ in their overall responsiveness to low arousal calls, but female cats adjusted their responsiveness if the state of arousal changed,' said Wiebke Konerding, first author of the study.

'Male cats did not do so. We were also surprised to find that prior experience at raising kittens was not necessary for female cats to respond differently to low and high arousal kitten calls.'

The study is the first to look into whether if in non-human mammals such as domestic cats where fathers do not take part in raising their young, males adjust their behavior in response to specific audio cues in the voice of their offspring.

They concluded that female cats are able to evaluate the emotional content of kitten calls and that they adjust their motivation to respond accordingly. 

The researchers found that female cats responded about 10 per cent faster to kitten calls that conveyed high arousal – greater urgency – than to kitten calls that conveyed low arousal. 

Male cats did not show a more urgent response to kitten calls that signified high arousal.

As male cats do not take part in raising their offspring, kitten calls and the urgency conveyed in them may not have the same relevance for them as for female cats

The ability to adjust their responses to the emotional cues of kitten calls is an ingrained sex difference between male and female adult cats that is not triggered by experience, according to the researchers.

As male cats do not take part in raising their offspring, kitten calls and the urgency conveyed in them may not have the same relevance for them as for female cats. 

'We didn't know whether these acoustic differences would be behaviorally meaningful – that is if they would trigger different responses in adult cats,' Ms Konerding explained. 

'We identified acoustic cues related to the fundamental frequency – the pitch – of the infant cry that correlated with how quickly the females responded. For example, they responded more quickly to faster changes in frequency.'  

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