We know that certain animals can learn their name. Dogs, for example, seem to take no time at all to both learn their names and respond appropriately when they hear it. But cat’s? Can these contrary, independent little creatures really learn their names (and perhaps more pertinently, actually respond to them)? As it turns, out, yes and yes. In 2019, a group of researchers led by Atsuko Saito, Kazutaka Shinozuka, Yuki Ito and Toshikazu Hasegawa decided to test out the theory of whether cats can learn to respond to their own name.
First of all, the team picked a random selection of cats from both family homes and cat cafes. Using a habituation-dishabituation paradigm, they then proceeded to play them a variety of sounds that included the voices of both their owners and strangers. Some of the sounds were of the cat’s name, others were of other cat’s names, and others still were of widely used nouns. The researchers visited the cats in either their homes or their resident cafes, and played the recordings of the sounds while their owners were in another room. Each cat was played four non-name nouns before being played a recording of their name.
Typically, all creatures show a stronger response to repeated stimuli than they do to one-off sounds. It was therefore expected that the cats would show the greatest reaction to the first word they heard than any that followed. As the cat’s name was the last in the sequence, it was expected they would show a reduced reaction compared to the words that proceeded it… unless, of course, they recognized it. The results (which were subsequently published in Scientific Reports were enlightening. Despite the expectation that the cats would respond most strongly to the repeated nouns, most of the cats in the group were found to respond to their own name over any other name or word, even when those words were of similar length and said with a similar intonation as their own name.
On hearing their name, cats would show undeniable signs of recognition, moving their heads and ears in the direction of the recording to a far greater extent than when they heard another word. And it wasn’t just their owners that could generate a reaction. Even when they heard their name come from the mouth of a stranger, most (albeit not all) cats showed a similar reaction. So, what does this mean? Basically, it’s as we always thought. Call a dog by its name and they’ll come bounding over in no time. Call a cat by its name and there’s every chance they’ll ignore you. But as the study shows, it’s not that they don’t recognize their name- they just don’t always like to show it.
Teach Your Kittens Well
As the findings of the experiment show, cats have the same cognitive ability to distinguish their own name from other sounds as dogs. Next time you call your cat repeatedly, only to be met with nothing more than a raised whisker and a contemptuous look, don’t write it off as a lack of intelligence. Your cat understands, all right, but even after 10,000 years of living side by side with us, they still like to feel they have the upper hand in the relationship.
So, if cats can learn their name, but like to keep us on our toes by occasionally pretending otherwise, is there anything we can do to motivate them to respond on a more consistent basis? In a word, yes. Over time, cats will start to link the use of their name with certain behaviors – for example, most people will use their cat’s name when they’re calling them to dinner, or while lavishing them with affection. Of course, not everything we say or do is going to help the process. If you’re inclined to use “pet names” or abbreviations instead of their actual name, it’s likely your cat won’t hear their name with the frequency (or with the corresponding behaviors) required to identify with it.
That said, there’s a number of ways you can help things along. Like dogs, cats can be trained to respond to certain words. If you thought Fido was the only creature able to do a high-five, then wait to see what kinds of trick Felix has up his sleeve. If you want your kitty to learn to sit, stay, high five, go to bed when you ask, and yes, even respond to their name when called, you just need to ensure they receive the proper training. And as with everything, the proper training starts with working out what motivates them, and then tapping into that as much as possible.
So, for example, if you’re dealing with a cat that always has their mind on their stomach (which, let’s face it, is pretty much all of them), use treats as a way of re-enforcing any good behavior displayed in training sessions. As soon as your cat starts to make the mental connection between certain types of behaviors and certain types of responses (in this case, a coming when called and a tasty little treat), you can bet your bottom dollar they’ll take to training like a duck to water.
Reward your cat with a little treat each time it responds to its name, and soon enough, you’ll have a cat that never fails to come when called. If you’re worried it’s going to take more treats to get them to that stage than either your wallet or their waistline can afford, clicker training can be an effective alternative. As with people, the best time to start any training is when your cat is still in its developmental stage – i.e. when they’re kittens. As PetMd notes, a kitten’s human association period starts at just 17 days old, so it’s vital to get them used to being handled and spoken to as soon as possible. By erasing any natural fear they have of humans, you’ll find it much easier to train them to come on cue.