Science

Domestic cats can recognise their own names when called


Many cat owners will tell you that their feline friends understand them and scientists have now confirmed that domestic cats recognise their names when spoken.

Researchers in Japan discovered that pet cats are able to tell their names apart from other words.

Experts found that commonly spoken words will catch a cat’s attention, but this fades the more you speak to them. 

However, their interest perks up again when hearing their name spoken after a string of words. 

Cats learn to recognise their names because it is one of the words most commonly directed at them by their owners, researchers suggest.

Their name may be associated with rewards such as food, petting or play time, or unwelcoming events like a bath or trip to the vet, experts say.

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Many cat owners will tell you that their feline friends understand them and scientists have now confirmed that domestic cats recognise their names when spoken. Researchers in Japan discovered that pet cats are able to tell their names apart from other words (stock image)

Many cat owners will tell you that their feline friends understand them and scientists have now confirmed that domestic cats recognise their names when spoken. Researchers in Japan discovered that pet cats are able to tell their names apart from other words (stock image) 

Evolutionary psychologist Atsuko Saito of Japan’s Sophia University and colleagues from the University of Tokyo and the RIKEN Center for Brain Science in Hirowara are behind the study.

Researchers tested the reactions of 78 domestic cats who either lived in ordinary households or a ‘cat cafe’, establishments where visitors pay to spend time with our feline friends. 

Each cat was played recordings of either one of the scientists or the cats’ owner saying four different common nouns, followed by either the name or that of one of the other cats they live with.

Experts looked for evidence of the kitties reacting to each word – such as movements or the cats vocalising back.

More than half of the cats responded to human speech by moving their ears and heads. 

Fewer than a tenth reacted by either making sounds, swishing their tails, or moving their paws.

‘Many cat owners know that cats understand their own names. So, there is no big surprise in the results,’ Dr Saito told MailOnline. 

However, Dr Saito explains, there was previously no scientific evidence recorded to actually verify that cats have this capacity.

‘Also, people who have no experience of keeping cats do not know about cats’ high cognitive ability,’ she adds. 

Alongside household pets, the researchers tested the reactions to speech of ten kitties who lived together in a cat cafe. These establishments (as pictured) are themed businesses that allow visitors to pay to spend time with our feline friends, and are very popular in Japan

Alongside household pets, the researchers tested the reactions to speech of ten kitties who lived together in a cat cafe. These establishments (as pictured) are themed businesses that allow visitors to pay to spend time with our feline friends, and are very popular in Japan

Scientists graded each cat’s reactions on a four-point scale which ran from ‘no reaction at all’ to ‘a marked response’.

As each of the common nouns were spoken in turn, the cats were seen to react less – a familiarity response that the scientists call ‘habituation’. 

However, when they heard their names, the extent of the cats’ reactions were seen to rebound to higher levels.

The cats responded to their names in this way regardless of whether they were being spoken to by their owners or an unfamiliar researcher.

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT  THE WAYS CATS COMMUNICATE WITH US?

Cats began to live alongside humans around 9,500 years ago. 

Our feline friends have developed ways to communicate with us by adapting how they communicate with each other. 

The vocalisations made by domestic cats, for example, are more comfortable to our ears than those made by African wild cats.

When trying to solicit food, pet cats use a different purr than at other times – one that humans tend to find more urgent and unpleasant to hear.

Unlike with us, adult cats do not meow at each other. This behaviour is adapted from kittenhood, a time at which newborns meow at their mothers in order to get their attention.

Kitties also rub against us to exchange scents. In colonies, cats do this bonding ritual to each other to create a shared, recognisable group scent.

Previous studies have shown that cats can respond to non-verbal cues from humans – including pointing gestures and facial expressions.

Researchers had also determined that cats can tell their owners’ voices apart from those of strangers.  

Scientists found that cats can even distinguish their names from those words that have a similar length and pronunciation. 

Although the cafe cats and household cats were similarly able to tell their names apart from general nouns, the researchers found that the cafe cats also reacted to the names of the other cats that lived with them.

This response may be because the cafe cats often hear their names spoken alongside the names of the other kitties that live with them.

As a result, they have come to associate all of the group’s names with either rewards or punishments, rather than just their own, the authors suggest. 

Unlike dogs, which are well known for being able to respond to spoken commands, the extent to which cats can understand our speech had been less well understood. 

In one test, cats were played recordings of either one of the scientists or the cats' owner saying four different, common nouns followed by the kitty's name. The researchers graded the extent to which each cat responded to each word - looking for signs of movement or vocalisations back.

In one of the tests, cats were played recordings of either a scientist or the cats’ owner saying four different, common nouns followed by the kitty’s name. The researchers graded the extent to which each cat responded to each word – looking for signs of movement or vocalising back – on a scale of ‘0’ to ‘3’. As each of the common nouns were spoken in turn, the cats reacted less. However, on hearing their names, the extent of the cats’ reactions returned to higher levels

‘You know, there are so many studies about dogs’ ability to communicate with humans. We think it is important to show cats’ ability as well as dogs,’ Dr Saito added.

‘[Such research] will help to make both cat and human welfare better.’

Cats learn to recognise their names on their own through natural interactions with humans, without explicit training.

However, the researchers suggest that the same principle might be applied to teach cats to connect specific words with, for example, danger that they should avoid.

‘Since our results show that cats can discriminate and associate specific words with rewards or punishments, we can make cats associate them with things or places,’ Dr Saito said.

After training a cat to associate a word with light punishment (such as, perhaps, a spritz of water), she suggests that this learning could be applied to warn kitties against more dangerous threats.

The relationship between cats and humans is special, Dr Saito adds, because it is still evolving even today.

‘Domestication is not perfect now,’ she said, explaining that this allows us to study how the social ability of cats will evolve in regards to humans. 

With this study complete, the researchers are now looking further into the extent to which cohabiting cats can recognise the names of the other kitties they live with. 

The full findings of the study were published in the journal Scientific Reports.



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