Cats Do Recognize Their Names – They Just Don’t Care

Any puppy parent knows dogs know their names and come when they are called. While pups live to please and respond to us, cats are usually too busy hiding somewhere or simply ignoring their owners to answer when called. Cats and dogs use verbal communication differently. Dogs are similar in their ability to be social and friendly. On the other hand, cat are a solitary species and only communicate, especially verbally, if absolute necessary. So, if you are calling your cat’s name and she don’t see any dire reason to respond to you, she just won’t. Even if a cat knows her name, you calling her is not enough motivation for her to respond. There was a research on this, and a new study in Scientific Reports also claims that domestic cats do recognize their own names, it just couldn’t care less.

Researchers conducted a series of experiments in which a person would speak four different words and then say the cat’s name. The cat owners repeatedly say four words that were similar to their cats’ names. The reason for saying four words before the name was to get them accustomed to hearing words spoken. Cats often move their heads or ears when hearing words spoken, but that response diminished after four words. Only then was it time to say the name  and see how the cats responded. The experiment was conducted four times. Then the researchers had strangers speak the names to the cats to test their response. Though their responses were less prominent than when their owners called them, they still appeared to recognize their names.

“This new study clearly shows that many cats react to their own names when spoken by their owners,” said biologist John Bradshaw. “Cats are just as good as dogs at learning,” Bradshaw added. “They’re just not as keen to show their owners what they’ve learned.” Most of the cats moved their head or ears in response to hearing their name. The results showed that the cats could identify their own names among other, similar words.

“We conclude that cats can discriminate the content of human utterances based on phonemic differences,” the researchers wrote. “This is the first experimental evidence showing cats’ ability to understand human verbal utterances.”

Atsuko Saito, a behavioral scientist at the University of Tokyo, believes cats learn to recognize their names through “food” because of what is in it for them. Because cats are motivated by their own needs and desires, your kitty is most likely to come when you call her while showing her some food. If you call your cat’s name while shaking her favorite treat, you will most certainly have better response than if you just call her name.

Jennifer Vonk, a professor at Oakland University, said that, “I agree with the authors that it cannot tell us if cats represent their names as a label that identifies them, but it is interesting that they do attend to it as a special signal, probably associated with rewards such as food and petting.” The study found one minor exception to cats recognizing their name: cats that lived with others in a cat cafe. Those cats could distinguish their name from random nouns, but not from the names of the other cats.

Peter Pongracz, a professor specializing in the study of animal behavior at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, said by email that the study was very smartly designed, while noting that the sample that actually demonstrated the interesting results was somewhat small. Pongracz defended the tendency of cats to not respond when called, compared with the obedience of dogs. Dogs have been bred for millennia to be easy to train and responsive to humans, he said. Although cats were also domesticated long ago, it’s not easy to give training to respond. “Most cats fare really well with humans by simply being cute,” Pongracz said.

“As the Japanese study showed, cats respond to their name with not necessarily a quick run to their owner, but maybe with a simple, subtle twitch of their ears.”