Do cats recognise their names?

* From our partners at International Cat Care

As cat owners we naturally give our pet cats their own names. Sometimes fairly simple names ranging to quite unique and quirky choices! Most owners would agree that their cats seem to recognise and respond to their names when they are spoken but until recently, there has been little scientific evidence to support this claim. Do cats recognise their name or simply their owners voice?

Whilst research into human vocal communication has primarily focused on dogs, studies have found that a range of other species including apes, dolphins and parrots are all capable of recognising spoken words by humans. Yet up to now this has remained untested in cats.

With research beginning to look further at vocal communication with cats, a previous study found that cats are able to successfully identify their owner’s voice over that of a stranger’s voice. The current study took this work further by investigating whether cats can discriminate their name from other generic nouns, as well as from the names of other cats they lived with.

What were the key findings of this study?

The study found that cats across different settings, including those that lived alone, with other cats or resided at a cat café could all recognise and were seen to respond to their own names when spoken by their owner and were also able to distinguish their names from other spoken words. The cats could also distinguish their names from other words when spoken by the testers who were unknown to the cats. So, it’s not just the owners voice cats are responding to!

The only slight anomaly in their findings was from cats that lived at cat cafés. These cats struggled to identify their own names from those of the other cats they lived with, compared to cats living together in pet homes, and often responded to the names of the other cats they lived with. The authors took this finding to be due to the large numbers of different visitors that the cats interacted with, who often called lots of the cat’s names at the same time, meaning it was harder for the cats to build positive associations with their individual names in this setting. This is a plausible explanation for the finding and suggests that cats need to learn to associate something positive with their individual name for it to have meaning and therefore for them to attend to it. Therefore, spending time teaching our cats their name by pairing it with something rewarding is important for them to learn this association.

Why might this be important for our pet cats?

Evidence that cats are able to recognise their names and discriminate them from other words is an important step in studying the domestic cat’s ability to recognise verbal human communication. Responding to their names is likely to be the consequence of anticipating something they find rewarding, such as a meal being prepared or other enjoyable activity when they hear it. Knowing our cats reliably respond to their names can be important if we need to gain their attention and can be especially useful if we want to teach them other behaviours, such as to come to us when they are called. Whilst we traditionally think of training behaviours as primarily a dog orientated activity, teaching our cats certain skills can also be hugely important and enjoyable for both!

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