A new study suggests that our feline friends recognize their names.
When I call my cat, Cici, I generally follow it up with the rustle of a treat bag or a whistle, because I’m not sure if she knows or understands her name. Have you ever wondered the same thing about your own feline friend? Well, a recent scientific study has some answers for us.
Finding out how well cats understand us
Cat parent Dr. Atsuko Saito, a behavioral scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo, asked herself the same questions about her cat, Okara, and decided to conduct a study to find out whether or not cats actually do recognize their names when called.
The study involved 16 to 34 cats over four sessions, along with a series of human voice recordings. Each cat heard a recording of his own person’s voice, and another of a stranger’s. This was done to ensure the cat would be responding to the words being spoken, and not just the familiar sound of his person’s voice.
Each recording featured three words that were similar to the individual cat’s name, with the fourth word being the actual name. When the four words were played, every cat’s responses were observed and recorded. Initially, a majority of the cats responded to the first word, until they realized there was a second and a third. Most lost interest by the third word, until they heard the familiar fourth one — their names! Then they responded with a variety of behaviors, including tail swishing, ear pivoting, head turning, and even vocal murmuring. Dr. Saito found that the cats responded whether their names were spoken by their persons or by strangers.
Household cats vs. café cats
In an effort to gather further proof, Dr. Saito set up the same study using felines that live in a cat café. Bear in mind that a majority of these cats are not necessarily called by their names on a daily basis, and generally respond to an open call from visitors.
Dr. Saito found that the cafe cats responded to anyone’s voice calling, and were unsure about whether the names used were their own or another cat’s.
These observations show that household cats know the difference between their names and other similar-sounding words, regardless if those names are being called by a stranger or their own person.
How do our felines learn to recognize their names?
Cats learn to identify their names by the manner in which their “parent” speaks to them. This includes the use of body language, tone of voice and even eye contact, which are all important factors in the learning process. It requires patience, repetition and routine, as cats learn from experience. Desired responses, such as coming when called, are encouraged by using repeated phrases in day-to-day life.
One cat parent states that she talks to her felines constantly, using their names in every sentence so the kitties recognize them. Another says that her cat absolutely knows her name, and will answer to it with the same meow every time.
Cats recognize other words and phrases as well
A third cat parent claims that if her cat goes into a room that is off limits, she stands in the doorway, says “let’s go”, and the kitty runs out – an indication that cats understand other words besides just their names. I can affirm this through my own experience with Cici. She knows I don’t like her on the living room couch. All I say is “get down”, and she looks at me wide-eyed, murmurs back as if in protest, and then jumps down.
Kitties use specific sounds to communicate with us
Cats are said to make around 100 different sounds, from meows to chirps, murmurs to hisses. Dr. Sharon Crowell-Davis, a professor of veterinary behavior at the University of Georgia, says this has enabled cats to develop a language to communicate with humans.
Furthermore, John W. Bradshaw, a cat behavior expert at the University of Bristol in the UK, found that domestic cats are the only members of the feline family to form social relationships with humans. He indicated they have also developed the ability to communicate non-verbally with humans. This is visible through a cat’s body language, such as the use of tail movement, rubbing against the legs, and even head-butting, all of which display trust, affection and the willingness to bond.
Factoring in that feline wild streak
Of course, not every cat is going to fit this pattern. One pet parent jokes that his cat comes running at the sound of the fridge door or can opener, but will barely move when he hears his name being called. Perhaps that’s because cats retain so much of their wildness and independence. Many cat parents can attest to this, having experienced first-hand their kitties’ instincts of hunting and stalking.
This wild streak means cats don’t behave like dogs. While cats can be trained, it’s generally a lot easier to get dogs to sit, heel and fetch. Nevertheless, Dr. Saito’s study demonstrates that domestic cats learn from us, and will come running (if they feel like it, that is!) when called by their names.