They are often considered to be more aloof than their canine counterparts, but cats really can understand their owners' voices, a study has claimed. Japanese researchers have found that cats can distinguish their owners' voices from those of other people - implying that they do pay attention when spoken to.

The study, from the University of Tokyo, examined felines in their home environment. It involved recordings of strangers, as well as of the cats' owners, but that cats could not see who was speaking to them.

The researchers found that cats responded to voices by moving their heads and/or ears nearer the person who was speaking to them.

Or, when the cats detected a familiar voice, they also had dilated pupils, which can signal emotions such as excitement, Discovery News reported.

These reactions were more likely to occur when the cats heard their owners voices or when they became increasingly familiar with strangers' voices.

Study co-author Atsuko Saito explained to the website that dogs have evolved, and are bred, 'to follow their owner's orders, but cats have not been. So sometimes cats appear aloof, but they have special relationships with their owners.'

She added that cats have evolved not to show their emotions in order to survive. One example is illness, which they tend to hide because 'in the wild, no one can rescue them and predators pay attention to such weak individual,' she said.

The researchers added that after 10,000 years of living with humans, domestic cats have the ability to communicate with us, and, generally speaking, we seem to understand them.

The study, which will be published in the July issue of Animal Cognition, comes just weeks after an expert in animal behaviour claimed we will one day be able to talk to animals using mobile phone-sized gadgets.

Professor Con Slobodchikoff, of Northern Arizona University, is developing technology that interprets the calls of the prairie dog and says the technology could eventually be used to interpret other animals.

He also believes the technology could one day be fine-tuned to enable humans to talk back to animals and engage in conversation.

The professor, who has spent the past 30 years analysing the behaviour of animals, added: ‘I think we have the technology now to be able to develop the devices that are, say, the size of a cellphone, that would allow us to talk to our dogs and cats.

‘So the dog says "bark!" and the device analyses it and says, "I want to eat chicken tonight."

'Or the cat can say "meow," and it can say, "You haven't cleaned my litterbox recently".'