Study Says Cats Know Their Names but Choose to Ignore Us

Anyone who’s ever had a run-in with a typical feline will know cats can be strong-willed and obstinate (to put it politely). Unlike dogs, who will shower anyone who so much as looks at them with all the love and affection you could possibly want, cats are more selective, choosing with an almost arbitrary decision-making process who’ll they deign to allow to pet them, and who they’ll show the sharp end of their claws instead. For cat lovers, it’s this stately, diva-like behavior that makes felines such fascinating creatures. For the less well inclined, it’s proof positive of why it’s dogs, not cats, that have forever and will forever, be man’s best friend.

So, we know cats can be… shall we say, “belligerent”, but just how belligerent, we’re only just beginning to find out. According to a recent study, the length’s a cat will go to be deliberately contrary is almost without bounds. For years, we’ve all been inclined to think dogs are the more intelligent of the two species… after all, of the two, only the one seems capable of recognizing and responding to their own name. As it turns out, those crafty cats may have been fooling us all this entire time.

A recent investigation in Japan led by behaviorist scientist Atsuko Saito aimed to zero in on earlier studies that concluded cats can recognize their owner’s voice. This time around, Saito wanted to take things one step further and see whether they could also recognize the sound of their own names, or at least distinguish their own names from others. As anyone who’s ever gone hoarse trying to get a cat to respond to their name (or indeed, anything else) will know, the initial outlook was pretty pessimistic.

As part of the report, Saito conducted 4 experiments with 16 to 34 domestic cats in each. The cats were then played a recording of the owner’s voice repeating a word that bore a strong resemblance to their cat’s name often enough for the cat to develop an “immunity” to the sound and stop responding. Once the first task was completed, Saito asked the owners to say their cat’s actual names, to see whether they were able to distinguish their name from the “almost but not quite” word the owner had previously been repeating. As it turns out, they could- according to Saito, the cats showed a markedly different response to the sound of their own name than they did to the other word (or indeed any other names the owners cared to throw at them). Among the different reactions were an increased likelihood to meow, and more discernible movements of their ears, heads, and tails (not much to go on, you’d think, but given the lack of response cats are usually inclined to show pretty much anything that doesn’t involve the sound of a can being opened, pretty suggestive nonetheless).

To add further fuel to their eventual conclusion, the researchers asked people the cats were unfamiliar with to try the same experiment, to make sure it wasn’t just the sound of the owner’s voice the cats were responding to (as opposed to the sound of their actual name). Although the cat’s responses were less obvious this time around, they were still distinct enough to support the researcher’s premise…. and their conclusion. “From the results of all experiments, it thus appears that at least cats living in ordinary households can distinguish their own names from general words and names of other cats,” the researchers wrote. “We conclude that cats can discriminate the content of human utterances based on phonemic differences.”

The results of the study have piqued the interest of owners and biologists alike. “This new study clearly shows that many cats react to their own names when spoken by their owners,” biologist John Bradshaw commented after reviewing the investigation’s conclusion (although he was slightly less convinced that cats are able to pick up on their own name when it’s spoken by an unfamiliar voice). “I think that it’s entirely possible that some cats are able to generalize between one human voice and another, but I’d like to see more trials before I’d say that the evidence is compelling,” he went on to say.

Kristyn Vitale (also a researcher into feline behavior, although not one involved in this particular study), agrees, saying the idea that cats recognize their own names “makes complete sense to me.” She doesn’t, however, agree that the study proves cats are able to recognize that the name somehow “belongs” to them. Rather, she thinks they’ve simply been trained to recognize a particular sound… something animal behaviorist Monique Udell agrees with. “Cats are paying attention to you, what you say and what you do, and they’re learning from it,” she claims.

Saito herself has been reluctant to take any major leaps with the conclusion of the study, agreeing with Vitale that cats have probably just become accustomed to associating their names with punishments or rewards, rather than recognizing their monikers as belonging to them. “There is no evidence that cats have the ability to recognize themselves, like us,” she explains in The Guardian. “So, the recognition [of] their name is different from ours.” However, she’s keen to explore the topic further and see just how far she can push the idea that cats, like dogs, have the capacity to learn individual sounds and understand their meaning. Bradshaw seems to think the idea isn’t as farfetched as we might think. “Cats are just as good as dogs at learning,” he says. “They’re just not as keen to show their owners what they’ve learned.” So, while it may be possible to teach a cat to understand the word sit, whether or not we can actually get them to do it is another thing entirely.

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