Dogs have owners and cats have staff, as the old saying goes, and it is certainly true that cats and dogs are very different in terms of their personalities and tendency to cooperate or otherwise with humans!
Whilst most of us who own both dogs and cats are all too familiar with standing in a field fruitlessly yelling our dog’s name as aforementioned canine charges off into the distance, we are at least sure that dogs can learn and recognise their own names, assuming that they understand it in the first place and that it is used reliably and regularly.
However, whether or not cats could actually pick their own names from a string of words is something that we were not so sure about until recently. Now, researchers from Japan’s Sophia University have published their findings into a study about cats and name recognition, to answer the question once and for all.
Can cats recognise their own names, and how can we tell if they do? Read on to find out.
Researchers at Sophia University in Japan undertook a study of cats to determine whether or not they could pick out and identify their own names, and how the use of their names made them respond.
This study follows on from earlier research into the ability of other species such as dogs, parrots and dolphins when it comes to their recognition of certain meaningful terms like names, but was one of the first studies of its kind concerned with getting to the truth of the matter when it comes to cats.
To determine whether or not cats could recognise and respond to their own names, the study used a number of cats that were both housed with individual owners, and those living in Japan’s popular cat cafes, all of which had a name that was commonly and reliably used to talk to and refer to them.
The study was undertaken by playing each cat a recording of a voice saying four unconnected words, followed by the cat’s own name, all pronounced in the same tone of voice. The reactions (or lack of reactions) achieved from each cat when their name was used were recorded.
The study’s main finding was that cats don’t pay a huge amount of attention to human chatter, showing little response when the recording was played – just a twitch of the head in most cases. However, by assessing each cat’s reactions on a four-point scale, the researchers determined that the responses of the majority of the cats was more pronounced when their name was used, indicating that cats recognise their name as distinct and having a meaning apart from other words.
Test one involved using each cat’s owner’s voice to make the recordings, and most of the cats in the study followed a similar reaction pattern. Cats would initially show some minor signs of attention when the voice begins speaking, dropping off in most of the cats involved by the time the four words preceding the cats’ names were spoken as they got used to, and began to ignore, the human’s speech. However, in nine out of the sixteen cats within this part of the study, a larger measurable reaction was recorded when the cat’s name was mentioned, leading most cats to prick up their ears.
Subsequent experiments involved the recordings made using a voice unknown to the cat, and also, the voice of the owners of multi-cat households and residences, like the aforementioned cat cafes.
Even in these rather different scenarios, the majority of cats involved appeared to recognise and display some level of reaction to the use of their specific names.
The evidence from the Sophia University research would seem to indicate definitively that cats can pick their names out of a string of words, and display a marked if subtle reaction to the use of their names.
However, other researchers and experts advise some caution in interpreting these results to mean that cats have a working understanding of the name used for them specifically, such as expert Dr John Bradshaw from the University of Bristol.
Dr Bradshaw commented that the research that the Sophia University study’s findings don’t so much indicate that cats recognise and respond to their names in the way we usually assign meaning to a name, but are simply responding to specific sounds and sound patterns that have meaning to them – usually because the use of their name means attention, food, or maybe being told to get off the worktops!
The evidence that cats can pick the sound of their name out of a sentence is strong, but the ways that this applies in practice are not quite so impressive. Even the cats that did react clearly to the use of their names in the experiment were subtle about it and didn’t respond in the same way as you would expect a dog to – calling a cat by name is unlikely to result in them stopping what they are doing and coming to you unless they expect a treat or some food, or have their own reasons for wanting attention at the same time!
Additionally, because we don’t use cats’ names as a training command and don’t train cats like we do dogs, we don’t tend to be as consistent or accurate in terms of the ways in which we use their names. Many cat owners shorten or truncate their cats’ names when using them, and a lot of us give our cats nicknames too, which we use interchangeably with their real names.
Can cats understand their own names? Probably. Is this useful in practice? Only if it suits your cat at the time!