Research says cats know their names, but prefer to ignore their owners
A recent scientific revelation about cats is just like the felines themselves: intriguing but fairly unhelpful. Scientists led by Atsuko Saito from the Department of Cognitive and Behavioral Science at the University of Tokyo have proven that cats actually do have a pretty good idea what their names are. But are they going to come when you call them? Um, maybe? It’s nothing personal, but Felis catus may not be thinking the same thing you are when they hear their name, and so may both know the name and choose to ignore owners when they’re called. Here’s how the researchers found out this well-guarded secret about cats knowing their names, and how cat owners can use the information:
Studying Cats Is Easier Than Herding Them
Saito got going on this kitty research as a veteran cat owner herself. “I love cats. They’re so cute and so selfish. When they want to be touched, they’ll come by me, but when they want to be left alone, they’ll just leave,” she told National Geographic. She’d already done successful research proving such feline capabilities as being able to recognize owners voices. But this time, Aito wanted an answer to the question that plagues many fellow cat lovers: Do cats recognize their names?
Saito and crew thought the answer was an affirmative and tested their theory by reaching out to 78 domesticated cats in their homes and Japanese cat cafés. In the first portion of the study, conducted on cats’ home turf, Saito got cat owners themselves to pronounce four nouns that were about the same length, and then say their cat’s name. After that, utter strangers pronounced the cats’ names. Researchers videotaped these cozy cat conversations and observers later classified the cat’s responses to hearing those words into five categories: ear moving, head moving, vocalizing, tail moving, and displacement. The observers determined that even when the person saying a cat’s name wasn’t the owner, they still responded with these reactions more than they did to other nouns the humans pronounced. In the second portion of the study, the researchers performed the same drill on cats at a cafe, who were used to interacting with lots of humans and had names that were widely publicized by the cafe. The cats there also seemed to know their names, and Saito had her scientific evidence to back up those intuitive cat owner feelings.
But here’s where the researchers encountered an interesting ripple. The cafe cats reacted to their names, sure, but had similar responses when they heard the names of other cats that resided at the cafe. This didn’t happen as much with the housecats, and the researchers theorize that housecats have a mixed experience with an owner calling all the cats at once. It may or may not involve a positive event in a kitty’s life. For cafe cats, though, hearing specific cat names almost always meant a reward was on the way.
So Is Cat Training Next?
Saito’s research concludes that “cats can discriminate words uttered by humans from other words—especially their own names.” The Tokyo research team noted that the name recognition might come about because the cat associates it with “rewards, such as food, petting, and play.” This same thinking may explain why cats don’t rush to come when they hear their name. Some of them may recognize that the call precedes a visit to the vet, for example. Others may associate hearing their name with being petted, which can be a reward for some cats but a stressor for others.
Saito sees positive outcomes from the research in any case. “This study has demonstrated that cats can discriminate human utterances based on phonemic differences,” the corresponding paper published in Scientific Reports explained. “We may utilize this ability positively for cats’ quality of life. For example, perhaps we can get cats to learn that dangerous objects or places are referred to by specific utterances. This work has shed new light on the ability of cats to communicate with humans; further clarifying cats’ abilities with respect to cat–human communication will potentially enhance the welfare of both humans and cats.”