Cats Actually Understand When You Say Their Name, Study Finds
Your feline friend understands that it has a name, and it knows when you use it, new research has found.
I’m convinced that my cats, Fade and Alucard, know their names. And, when I call them, they know I mean business.
When I’m sleeping and Alucard wants me to top off his water dish, he bites my face. I scream his name and he gets more excited, because he knows it’s time for fresh water. When I’ve been on the computer too long, Fade strolls into the office and screeches at me until I log off. I say her name, she screams, I say her name louder, and she screams some more. Then I log off and she gets to sit in my lap. They might not come running when I call (they’re cats after all), but they do respond. There’s a flick of the tail, a passing glance—they know.
Now, I’ve got scientific proof to back up what I, and many other cat owners, attest to via anecdotal evidence. A new study from the Sophia University in Tokyo, published on Thursday in Scientific Reports, shows that cats can discriminate their own names from a list of other words.
Over the course of four experiments, researchers tested the ability of domestic house cats and kitties from a cat cafe to pick their own names out of a jumble of recorded words. The scientists played recordings of various nouns being spoken mixed in with people (including their owners) saying their names, as well as the names of other cats.
Most of the cats perked up at the sound of human voices alone—tails flicked, ears twisted towards the sound, and a few made some noise. But, as the recordings rambled on with a list of nouns, they began to ignore the human voices until they heard their own name. Then, the house cats in the study perked right up.
“These cats discriminated their own names from general nouns even when unfamiliar persons uttered them,” the authors wrote. “These results indicate that cats are able to discriminate their own names from other words.”
While the house cats in the study seemed to recognize their own name, the authors report that cafe cats responded to not just their own name but the names of cohabitating cats.
This is a phenomenon I see with my own house cats. When I’m arguing with Fade—usually this involves saying his name in a scolding tone—Alucard is often asleep and no amount of cat screeching and name-calling will wake him. He knows my beef is with Fade.
The study notes that researchers have spent a lot of time studying interactions between dogs and humans, but not cats and humans. We’re just learning how our fuzzy little feline friends communicate with us, and the scientists were careful to note that the observed response was likely conditioned.
“Cats can discriminate words uttered by humans from other words—especially their own names, because a cat’s name is a salient stimulus as it may be the human utterance most frequently heard by domestic cats (cats kept by humans) and may be associated with rewards, such as food, petting, and play,” researchers wrote.
This might very well be true, but these scientists don’t have the last word on cats. A previous study found that cats are nice, actually, and will even forgo food if it means socializing with a person.
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.