Does your cat know her name when she hears it?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

does cat know her name

Story at-a-glance -

  • Family dogs quite obviously know and respond to their names, but this isn’t always the case with cats
  • Researchers in Tokyo conducted a study to determine whether cats can distinguish their names from other words and the names of other cats
  • From their responses, it was clear that cats do recognize and respond (however subtly) to their own names
  • Dogs have a 20,000-year head start on domestication over felines, so it’s possible cats will continue to evolve socially the more time they spend with humans

As an observant pet parent, you've probably noticed the difference between how dogs respond to their names versus cats. Unless your dog is focused on something more interesting, generally speaking, he'll move heaven and earth to answer your call because there could be food or a treat involved, a walk or maybe some playtime with his favorite human.

Chances are when you say your cat's name, you get a very different response or, more likely, no response at all. So, do cats not recognize their names, or have they simply found another way to ignore us?

Something we have in common with cats — We're both 'self-domesticated'

Fortunately for all of us who love cats, the research world is beginning to find them as fascinating as we do. Recently, a small team of university scientists in Tokyo set out to study cats' ability to understand human voices similar to the way dogs, parrots, dolphins and apes are able to understand certain words.

However, compared to those highly social species, "… cats are not so social," explains lead study author Atsuko Saito, Ph.D., a psychologist at Tokyo's Sophia University. "Cats interact with us when they want.1 Interestingly, learning more about simple social behaviors in cats such as name recognition may help researchers learn more about how humans became social. According to ScienceDaily:

"Both humans and cats have evolved through the process of self-domestication, where the population rewards certain traits that then become increasingly common in future generations."2

Past research with cats has revealed they can read human gestures to find hidden food, recognize their human's voice, and beg for food when someone looks at them and says their name.3 According to Saito, these three behaviors suggest cats may know their names. "I think many cat owners feel that cats know their names," Saito told ScienceNews magazine,4 but until now, there was no scientific evidence to back that up.

Study says — Cats do seem to know their names

The study, published recently in the journal Scientific Reports, involved 77 cats living in homes and cat cafes (typically tea or coffee shops where customers can interact with the many cats who live there), and four separate experiments conducted over a three-year period.5 The kitties were from 6 months to 17 years of age, of both genders, mostly mixed breeds, mostly spayed or neutered, and all but one were indoor-only cats.

The researchers recorded both their own voices and the voices of the cats' owners saying five words — the first four were words that sounded similar to each cat's name, and the fifth was the actual name. Researchers also evaluated whether the cats could tell the difference between their own names and those of other cats with whom they lived.

The behavior the researchers were looking for from the cats to indicate they knew their names was no response upon hearing the first four words, and head or ear movement (or rarely, moving their tails or bodies or vocalizing) upon hearing their own names. The researchers observed that the cats who had weak responses to similar-sounding words or the names of other cats they lived with were significantly more likely to show a strong response to their own names, even when spoken by someone other than their owner.

Cats living in homes were more likely than cafe cats to distinguish between their own names and the names of cohabitating cats, whereas cafe cats almost always reacted to their own names and those of other cats living there. Since at cafes the cats' names are often called together, the researchers theorize it may be more difficult for kitties to associate their own names with positive reinforcement in those environments. According to Saito, cats who didn't respond to their names may still recognize them.

"Their lack of response may be caused by their low motivation level to interact with humans, or their feelings at the time of the experiment," she said.6

Saito's advice to cat parents who want to communicate more with their pets is to "… interact with your cat when she shows that she wants to interact with you."

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Are cats still evolving socially?

Saito makes the point that unlike cats, dogs "… are literally born to respond to their names." This is because for a very long time now, humans have purposely bred dogs to be obedient and responsive in their interactions with us. Cats, on the other hand, are semi-domesticated. They're about 20,000 years behind the curve as compared to dogs.

Dogs have other advantages in this arena as well. They're a social species, whereas felines are independent, preferring to spend much of their time alone. In addition, one of the first things dogs are taught is their name, and training and socializing dogs is easier because unlike most kitties, they're motivated by treats and other types of rewards.

It wasn't that long ago that most cats spent most or all of their time outside. Now that more and more feline family members are living indoors exclusively and spending their days and nights in close contact with humans, it's possible their ability to interpret and respond to our verbal and physical cues will continue to develop. "Social evolution is an ongoing process," says Saito, and cats are still evolving.

Bottom line: When you call your feline BFF by his carefully chosen, perfectly suited name and receive zero response, make no mistake, he heard you and has you on ignore. But he'll come around eventually, as he always does, on his terms, not yours! For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, this is what it looks like when a cat actually comes when called!