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Why Do We Talk to Dogs and Cats as if They Were Babies?

4 minutes
Do you talk to your cat as if it were a small child? Your instinct is right: they understand you better that way.
Why Do We Talk to Dogs and Cats as if They Were Babies?
Last update: 14 April, 2023

Sometimes, we talk to dogs and cats as if they were babies and, more often than not we look around rather shamefaced to see if anyone’s listening. Well, it’s time to lose that embarrassment, because this tone of voice has a useful communicative function for pets.

And the fact is that, as we can’t communicate using language like our species, we have to invent a way to communicate with them based on their abilities and ours. Let’s see how we humans manage to make ourselves understood with these high-pitched voices.

Baby talk and pet talk

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These two concepts refer to the type of tone and cadence of speech that we automatically adopt when addressing small children. When this style is used for animals, it’s referred to as pet talk (or Pet-Directed Speech, PDS) rather than baby talk. However, both have common characteristics such as the following:

  • A slower rhythm
  • A higher-pitched tone of voice
  • The use of short, simple sentences
  • Repetition of words
  • The use of diminutives
  • The use of nonverbal language to accompany the message.

As you can see, this type of speech incorporates many nonverbal elements and focuses on the sound of the words themselves rather than on the meaning. In an infant, this has a clear objective: to attract their attention and familiarize them with verbal language through the association of sounds and elements of the real world.

But what’s the use of talking to dogs and cats as if they were babies? Let’s take a look in detail.

Why do we talk to dogs and cats as we would to a baby?

Animals are sensitive to the prosody of language, that is, to the tone, volume, and rhythm of pronunciation. At a basic level of communication, the voice is a form of emotional expression that sends a clear message to other individuals in the space in which the individual is. A bird will fly away if you give a cry, for example, even if you aren’t imitating the vocalizations of its species.

This ability, already innate in animals with a sense of hearing, has taken shape in dogs and cats over long years of domestication. Therefore, we are dealing with the two species that are most sensitive to the emotional tone implicit in human speech.

The call for attention

Pet talk emphasizes, above all, the high-pitched tone used when addressing the animals that live with us. As this study published in the journal Nature points out, this type of speech is more efficient in attracting the attention of dogs than the tone we speak to adults in.

This exaggerated prosody would be the key to convert the speech heard by the dog into an easily recognizable signal.

Emotional expression when we talk to dogs and cats like babies

The ability to recognize emotions in companion animals has also been extensively studied. Studies show that both dogs and cats are able to sense the mood of their human through their voice and facial expression.

Therefore, PDS not only works to make them turn their heads and look at us, but also to express what we feel when we talk to them. In this way, the high-pitched tone and exaggeration in pronunciation would make it easier for them to recognize the words of affection and the intention to socialize with them in a positive way.

What are the benefits of speaking to them in this way?

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According to a study, cats memorize faces.

When dealing with individuals, human or not, who don’t speak your language, the only resource you have left is the nonverbal one. Our species, so tied to words, is sometimes unaware of the enormous effect that gestures and voice have on the transmission of information.

Showing them that you love them, in a way adapted to their communication, will only strengthen your bond. Pet talk is an unmistakable way of transmitting affection and establishing an effective and clean form of communication.

The only precaution we must take when talking to dogs and cats as if they were babies is not to fall into anthropomorphization, which consists of attributing human mental and emotional processes to the other species. Always remember that your duty as a caregiver is to learn about the animals we take in, giving them the characteristic they deserve.

And, above all, don’t hesitate to show affection to other animals too. Do it in a way that they understand, but do it, because there’s no language more universal than respect and love.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Albuquerque, N., Mills, DS, Guo, K., Wilkinson, A. y Resende, B. (2022). Los perros pueden inferir información implícita de las expresiones emocionales humanas. Cognición animal , 25 (2), 231-240.
  • Burnham, D., Kitamura, C., & Vollmer-Conna, U. (2002). What’s new, pussycat? On talking to babies and animals. Science296(5572), 1435-1435.
  • Lansade, L., Trösch, M., Parias, C., Blanchard, A., Gorosurreta, E., & Calandreau, L. (2021). Horses are sensitive to baby talk: Pet-directed speech facilitates communication with humans in a pointing task and during grooming. Animal Cognition24, 999-1006.
  • Jeannin, S., Gilbert, C., Amy, M., & Leboucher, G. (2017). Pet-directed speech draws adult dogs’ attention more efficiently than Adult-directed speech. Scientific reports7(1), 4980.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.