Does Your Cat Recognize His or Her Own Name?

Story at-a-glance -

  • Cats have been domesticated by humans for at least 12,000 years, according to research in Cyprus where the remains of cats were found in the same vicinity as that of humans
  • Ancient Egyptians didn’t worship cats as much as they created gods of wood and stone to depict cats’ physical features, complete with characteristics like near-supernatural smarts and strong dispositions
  • It’s possible that, rather than cats being tamed by humans, the first grain stores attracted mice, which attracted feral cats, which became a successful biological and symbiotic experiment
  • One expert in cat behavior asserts that cats don’t recognize words, but they do understand repetition, the consequences of words (such as being fed after hearing “din din” and a specific tone of voice
  • Selective hearing and episodic memory relate to the ability of cats to respond, discussed when studies focused on cats’ responses to hearing recordings of their owners’ voices as well as the voices of strangers calling the cats’ names

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Whether or not you realize it, cats who respond when their names are called do so for one reason and one reason only: They feel like it. There are several factors that may contribute to your cat’s choice to come or go when you actually want them to. Cats, regardless of their adorably cuddly — or habitually indifferent — personalities, have wills of iron.

Cats have blessed the universe with their presence for at least the last 12,000 years, and possibly more than that, according to Smithsonian Magazine, which quoted George F. Will’s quip: “The phrase ‘domestic cat’ is an oxymoron,” the reason being that “As every cat owner knows, nobody owns a cat,” per a quote by Ellen Perry Berkeley.

Archaeological records that would identify precisely when cats were first domesticated are nonexistent, one reason being because wild (aka feral) and “house cat” skeletons are remarkably similar.

Some experts point to the 8,000-year-old jawbone of a cat found on Cyprus in 1983, but even older clues helped scientists more accurately estimate cat domesticity to be more like 9,500 years old when, on the same island in 2004, a mummified cat was found, with one fascinating difference: It was deliberately buried with a human.

Research journal Science1 published a study in 2007 that submitted convincing evidence that all cats are direct descendants of a Middle Eastern wildcat known as Felis sylvestris, or “cat of the woods.” Their best estimates pinpoint Mesopotamia as the place felines were first “tamed.”

In fact, the Egyptians immortalized them in stone, considering them to be sacred as evidenced by thousands of cat statues and mummified cat remains found in temple excavations.

The ancient Egyptians didn’t worship cats, per se, as some experts describe it, but rather created gods of wood and stone to depict their physical features, complete with the characteristics attributed to them, such as near-supernatural smarts and larger-than-life dispositions.

There’s a story of Egyptian sun god Re, whose daughter Sekhmet had a woman’s body and a lion’s head, which lent her a rather aggressive, unpredictable temperament and the soul of a cold-blooded huntress.

The New York Times2 describes another cat-like Egyptian deity, Bes, a male, this time with a range of more positive personality traits, from loyal companion to paternal protector to fun-loving entertainer. But all the aspects of the feline persona make cats just as sought-after today as they were then.

Did Cats Domesticate Themselves?

There is a large contingency of people who must concede that they’re owned by cats, and that the species didn’t just take over their respective households 12,000 years ago; first, they domesticated themselves. For the owners of what the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)3 estimates to be 85.8 million pet cats in the U.S. alone, it seems not much has changed. According to the Smithsonian:

“When humans were predominantly hunters, dogs were of great use, and thus were domesticated long before cats. Cats, on the other hand, only became useful to people when we began to settle down, till the earth and — crucially — store surplus crops.

With grain stores came mice, and when the first wild cats wandered into town, the stage was set for what the Science study authors call ‘one of the more successful ‘biological experiments’ ever undertaken.’ The cats were delighted by the abundance of prey in the storehouses; people were delighted by the pest control.”4

Again, the inference is that way back in the day, cats decided that if humans fancied themselves clever enough to be cat domesticators, that was OK, but in reality, cats still choose; they still get what they want, regardless of what people believe.

Still, the world is a better place with them in it, as any kitty devotee can tell you. (The thought-provoking part is that if cats could talk, they’d say the same thing with no apologies.) The question today, however, is whether cats are motivated to respond when they hear their own names being spoken.

Metro UK notes that cats are “beholden to no one, and will usually submit to human attention only as long as it suits them,” and further, they “can be so aloof, it’s tricky to be sure whether they don’t know their names, or do know them but choose not to acknowledge it when you call them.”5

Is Your Cat ‘Hard of Hearing’ or Simply Ignoring You?

Dogs, you may observe, actually do come when called (unless there’s a squirrel in the vicinity) but for cats it’s more than likely that it’s not their own names being called that they recognize but rather certain vocal tones, inflections and voice repetition, says Anita Kelsey, an expert in cat behavior. In her opinion:

“Cats won’t know what a word means, but they act on repetition and the consequences of the word. They can also recognize a specific tone of voice. So, for example, you could say ‘din dins’ which results in food coming, and after that, they’ll know that the phrase means that food is on the cards.

It’s the same with names. People call their cats using a different tone and they recognize the tone and sound meaning that attention from their human is going to follow.

The repetitiveness of a name can result in a cat responding, simply because they’ve been conditioned to expect attention from their owner afterwards. It’s the tone, the sound of the word, repetitive usage and what comes after that a cat responds to, rather than the name itself.”6

You have to admit that, somewhat like your cat (or some other cat you know), at some point or other you’ve been guilty of selective hearing. Maybe you were concentrating on hearing a football game or someone else talking when someone started talking to you. So what did you do? If you said “I just tune out the second voice,” that might be pretty close to what your cat does when you feel he’s ignoring you.

There are lots of jokes about cats and selective hearing, whether it’s a young child with her mom, a parent studiously concentrating on driving when the kids in the back seat are arguing or a student determined to cram a few more facts in while sitting in a noisy lunchroom before a big test. It might even suggest that if someone has such dedicated concentration that they’re able to tune out what’s “not important,” it may reveal a higher-than-average IQ.

A recent study even indicates that cats may be every bit as smart as dogs, especially with something called episodic memory, which is related to introspection, and introspection means some animals are self-conscious; that is to say, at least to some degree, self-aware.

Why Won’t Your Cat Come When You Call?

There’s also the question of whether cats hear and respond to the sound of their beloved human’s voice rather than recognizing that it’s their name that’s being called. According to a study7 in Japan in 2013, researchers at the University of Tokyo determined that yes, cats are perfectly capable of understanding their owners’ voices, but unless something’s in it for them, the response is, in most cases, flagrantly minimal.

Case in point, Atsuko Saito, a lecturer in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, found that cats do indeed recognize their own peoples’ vocal expressions. Tested against the recorded voices of four strangers calling out the name of the pet cats, 20 of the inscrutable animals responded by shifting their heads or ears, which Saito identified as “orienting” behavior.

They did not make tail movements or vocalization, which he called “communicative” behavior. Sometimes their pupils dilated, as well, Metro noted. But here’s the kicker: None of the recordings, whether spoken by the strangers or the cats’ owners, prompted the cats to either get up or move in any way when they heard their own names being called.

A more appropriate question to “Why won’t my cat come when called?” might be to ask the question after you’ve supplied your cat with everything in their hierarchy of need, such as food, water and shelter, and possibly the pretense of prey in the form of a feather teaser or catnip toy (or the door opened repeatedly so they can come and go at will).

Do your cats come to you when they’ve had their fill of three squares a day or the feline equivalent? They don’t? Don’t get too upset. Metro maintains that it’s only to be expected due to cats’ “evolutionary biology.” They’re not like dogs, the researchers maintain; they don’t run in packs; cats are solitary hunters, and as such, are not driven by a need to socialize, even with the people who give them everything they could possibly want and then some.

Not everyone agrees, however; some scientists say cat owners just need to look for and recognize ways their precious cats subtly communicate how much they really love their doting humans. And recent research suggests even wild cats may socialize with each other more than previously thought.

Dogs understand where they fall in the order of things; that the humans in the house — at least the big ones — are the proverbial pack leaders. But cats designate no one, human or otherwise, as their go-to guides, protectors or mentors. Cats are, when they want to be, their own masters, and that’s how they like it.

Fortunately, the cats you bring into your home to look after and spoil will occasionally allow you to believe you’re an integral part of their lives. Generally speaking, it’s an arrangement that works well for everyone involved. Just don’t let on that you’re onto them.