In a recent Japanese study on cat vocalization by the University of Tokyo, researchers have found that cats can indeed distinguish the voice of their owners, yet will fail to respond to it of their own accord. The results of this study may fail to shock cat owners as they already know that no one can truly own a cat. However, the researchers speculate that this lack of response may be due to their history of domestication.
The study was conducted by University of Tokyo researchers Atsuko Saito and Kazutaka Shinozuka in which they monitored the response of twenty housecats inside their homes. The pair allowed the cats to interact with their owners before having them walk out of sight. They then played recordings of three strangers calling their names, then their owner doing the same, and closing with yet another stranger.
The researchers analyze the response to each recording based on the cat's tail, ear and head movement as well as vocalization, eye dilation and shifting of their paws, or displacement. Upon hearing their name called regardless of by who the cats showed orienting behavior, moving their head and ears in the direction of the call. However, the cats did show far greater response to the call from their owner as opposed to the strangers', though they decline to move towards it regardless of the source. So thus the results of the study document that even thought cats could clearly distinguish their owner's voice, they neglected to respond to it.
This is in great contrast to a dog that will come when called even without the most basic of training once it recognizes its name. The study, which was published in the Animal Cognition Journal, goes on further to discuss that the cats response to their owner is so different from that of dogs because of how the cat was first domesticated.
In a recent genetic analysis of modern house cats, the study reveal that the most common ancestor was the Felis silvestris which was a species of wildcat that first came into human contact around 9,000 years ago. Unlike dogs who were domesticated for protection and hunting, cats were not actively domesticated by humans. They were attracted to agricultural communities by the rats that were attracted by the grain piles. This put them in contact with humans and as they preyed on the rats, doing humans a much needed service, these wildcats slowly domesticated themselves. So thus, dogs were domesticated to obey humans while cats merely saw humans as a welcome source of food and eventually affection.
Though dogs were bred over thousands of years to have specific skills and respond to commands, cats never needed to learn any of that. This is why pet owners perceive dogs to be more affectionate than cats as they seem to pay humans more attention. However, this study shows that while cats don't respond to commands, their attachment level does not different from dogs by any great measure.