Look Who’s Talking

Why people give their cats and dogs “human” voices.  

It can be startling when you first hear it: otherwise reasonable friends spouting their dogs’ inner monologues, usually in exuberant broken English and with no shame.

Most people who have friends with pets have heard these voices, often featuring alarmingly well-developed personalities, and most people with pets will admit to having created one of their own. Researchers suggest the amateur ventriloquists who assign distinctive voices to their cats and dogs are simply relating to them the best way people know how—by acting as if they’re human.

“The first thing people do is treat their pets like people, so a precondition is that they perceive minds in their pets,” said Kurt Gray, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “Once you see your pet as having a mind, and being pretty smart, and having a personality, the next question is, naturally, ‘What is the personality of my cat?’”

In the video above, Slate traveled to local pet parks and found plenty of owners ready to telegraph their companions’ thoughts on camera. Our curiosity was sparked partly after a British-born colleague revealed she had a cat who spoke with an American accent. (There may be a cameo in the video.)   

Gray said the impulse to unlock the minds of our closest animals is human. As he put it: “You’d be kind of a jerk if you didn’t try to figure out what kind of person someone is if you just met them at a dinner party.”  

This is a good point—pet owners do have dinner parties with their cats and dogs every night. Gray and his wife attend one with their two cats, Cleo and Chaz. Cleo is a prim and delicate lady; Chaz is larger, male, a “bruiser.” (“Cleo can open doors,” Gray reported. “Chaz doesn’t even know which direction doors open in most of the time.”)

Still, there are questions. Why do so many pet voices sound so childlike? Gray: “That comes from treating animals like kids. There’s been a funny switch in understanding our relationship to dogs, from ‘master’ to ‘parent.’ It used to be, ‘I’m the master of the dog.’ Now, ‘Oh, I’m the dog’s dad.’ ”

Do these personalities have more to do with the owner, or the pet? Gray again: “The more time people spend with their pets, and the lonelier they are, the more personality they make for their pets.” Ouch. “I think you can be socially connected to your pet and not be lonely,” he said. “But certainly research has found that the lonelier you are, the more likely you are to anthropomorphize things.”

That seems relatively harmless for most people. If there is a more disturbing element about how we connect with our pets, Gray said it’s more in comparison to how we treat other people—and whose minds we choose to develop. “If you think about Hurricane Katrina, there were thousands and thousands of people displaced. They lost their homes; they lost their lives. And yet television producers often focused on the dog that was stuck on the roof. It seems crazy that with all this human suffering, we care about whether this dog is going to be able to swim to safety.” He explores this kind of disconnect in The Mind Club, a book he coauthored that’s due out next year. He studied why, for example, “people are more likely to buy their pets little jackets than to give money to Syrian refugees.”

Gray knows this sounds harsh, and he happily discussed how he is also guilty. “Pets are not just pets, they’re our pets. And it’s our responsibility to take care of them,” he said. “So maybe that affords some of the connection we have to them.” What does Cleo and Chaz’s screwball dynamic offer Gray and his wife? “A lot of it,” he said, “is a way for us to cope with them doing shithead things.”