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Do Cats Know Their Names? Here’s What Science Says

white british shorthair cat sitting

Being owned by a cat means accepting their need for independence. Our cats love us in their own way, but they don’t have a dog’s famous obedience — which is part of the reason that we love them so much.

But have you ever wondered if your cat knows their name and might even respond to it? There’s no question that cats are intelligent, but do they not respond to their names because they don’t know it or because they just don’t care?

Read on as we tackle this question. We also give you a few ways to test your cat how well they know their name.

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Do Cats Recognize Their Names?

So, do cats know their names? Yes, they do! In April 2019, an article was published in the journal Nature about this very subject.

This study took place in Japan and investigated 78 cats and if they could distinguish their names from other random words spoken to them. Most cats lived with their families, some alone and others in multi-cat homes, but a few others were living in a cat café.

feral cats resting outdoor
Image Credit: Dimitris Vetsikas, Pixabay

The Experiment

The University of Tokyo researchers, led by Atsuko Saito, conducted four experiments. In the first, cats living primarily on their own heard their owners say four different words that were similar to their own names, followed by their actual names.

The second experiment involved cats in multi-cat households and a few in cat cafés. These cats would hear the names of their cat buddies that they were living with, again followed by their actual names.

The third experiment was conducted with most of the cats from experiment two, but instead of hearing the names of the other cats, they heard four similar sounding words to their own names, followed by their own (like in experiment one).

Lastly, in experiment four, some of the cats used in the first three experiments were used, but the majority were new. They ranged from single-cat households to multi-cat, but this time, a stranger said four words followed by the cat’s names.

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Image Credit: TheCats, Shutterstock

The Results of the Experiments

The results demonstrated that the cats actually did respond to their own names. While in their homes, they initially seemed to react to the first few words that sounded similar to their names. However, they eventually seemed to get bored and started ignoring these words until it got to their actual names!

Once they heard their names, they immediately perked up and would show signs that they were listening and even intrigued. They would twitch their ears, move their heads, meow, and sometimes, even get up.

Even more interestingly, they responded to their names when both their owners and the strangers spoke. More telling is that in multi-cat households, these cats would react to their names even after hearing the other cat’s names being spoken.

The results weren’t quite as good at the cat café, but given the number of clients who enter the café at a given time and call to all the cats, it probably made it harder for these cats to differentiate their names from those of the other cats.

On the Other Hand

As compelling as this research is, there are experts who believe that it doesn’t really prove anything.

This article by Smithsonian Magazine takes the stance that cats don’t actually understand that what they’re hearing are their names. Mikel Delgado studies animal behavior at the University of California. He believes that cats might just think their name is another word that means attention or food. This is called “associative learning,” which most animals are capable of. It’s clear that more research is necessary.

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Image Credit: Dora Zett, Shuterstock

Cats and Research

Regardless of the results, the truth is that there just aren’t enough studies done on cats. A few studies have been attempted, but unsurprisingly, cats are less than cooperative.

Another study that was carried out by Saito, the same researcher as the previous research, discovered that a cat does recognize their owner’s voice but usually chooses to ignore it.

The overall takeaway here is that while the research that Saito and her team did was fantastic and an important step for us to further understand our relationship with cats, more studies need to be done.

Humans and Cats

Part of what explains the way that cats interact with us in comparison to dogs is how long they have been domesticated.

It is believed that dogs were domesticated at the end of the last Ice Age, about 11,000 years ago, which was even before horses. Dogs were domesticated for a purpose. They have long been companions and working for humans for as long as they’ve been with us.

Now, for cats, they’ve been living with humans for around 9,500 years, and we haven’t been breeding them with any particular purpose (other than appearance). Most of this can help explain the different relationships that we have with cats compared to dogs.

This also tells us why our cats can recognize their names and our voices but pick and choose how to react.

cat rubbing its body the owner
Image Credit: Piqsels

Do Your Own Experiment

You can try conducting your own experiment on your cat using the same techniques used in the study. Pick four different words that have a similar length to your cat’s name. Say each word without any inflection or tone, and pause for about 10 to 15 seconds between each word. Then, say your cat’s name exactly the same way as the other words.

Does your cat react in some way? Do they look at you, twitch their ears, or maybe even come to see you? Then, the chances are that your cat does indeed know their name!

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Conclusion

So, it does seem that cats can learn their names. Maybe it’s associative learning, or maybe they flick their ears at us because they do know that we’ve just said their name.

But perhaps it doesn’t matter if our cats respond to our voices or their names because they’re expecting food or pets. What truly matters is that we love them and take care of them, and they reward us with all that purring and making biscuits just when we need it the most!


Featured Image Credit: sitting_Real Moment, Shutterstock

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