Do Cats Know Their Names?

A new study sheds light on human-cat communication.

Posted Apr 10, 2019

If you, like me, are a cat owner, you probably have wondered at some point whether or not your feline companion recognizes the name you have so carefully chosen for him or her. There are, of course, some situations (particularly when food is involved) in which many cats seem to understand very well that they are being called. However, there are also other situations, e.g., when it is time to get off the living room table or to stop destroying the couch, in which many cats seem to be completely unable to understand that they are being called.

Thankfully, a recent Japanese study on cat behavior has once and for all clarified the question of whether or not cats recognize their names. The study, headed by Atsuko Saito from the Department of Cognitive and Behavioral Science at the University of Tokyo and published in the academic journal Scientific Reports (Saito et al., 2019), used a so-called habituation-dishabituation paradigm to investigate whether or not cats recognize their names.

The authors tested cats from families and cat cafés by playing different sounds to them that were individually recorded for each cat using the voice of their owners. One sound was the owner calling the cat’s name, the others were either widely used Japanese nouns or other cat names. The experimenters went to the cats’ homes and played the sounds to them with the owner out of sight. They always played four non-name sounds and then the name. The idea behind this was that the cats were expected to show a phenomenon called habituation when they listened to the words one after the other. Habituation is a common form of learning in which an organism responds less and less to a stimulus that is presented repeatedly. Thus, it was expected that the cats would show a stronger behavioral reaction to the first word they listen to than to subsequent words. Typical reactions to the words were moving ears and heads, vocalizations, or tail movements. The interesting part was when the cats’ names were presented: if they were just perceived as yet another sound emitted by the owner, the cats should show a decreased reaction because the names were always the last word in the sequence. If the cats, however, recognized their name as something special, they should show increased reactions to the name compared to the sounds listened to before. This resurgence in behavioral reaction to a particularly meaningful stimulus is called dishabituation.

The result? The cats clearly showed a stronger response when listening to their own names than to the words presented before. This was also true in a control experiment in which not the owner but a stranger uttered the cats’ names. This finding suggests that cats have the cognitive ability to discriminate their own names from other word based on phonemic differences in human language.

So the next time your cat does not react to its name being called, no matter how many times you try to make it get off the kitchen table, remember: Your feline friend may know its name—and choose to ignore you.

References

Saito A, Shinozuka K, Ito Y, Hasegawa T. (2019). Domestic cats (Felis catus) discriminate their names from other words. Sci Rep, 9, 5394.