Yes, your cat probably understands when you’re calling its name, a new study finds. But it may just choose not to listen.
A team of researchers found domestic cats respond more strongly to their own names than to other words in a series. In a new study published in Scientific Reports, they called their findings “the first experimental evidence showing cats’ ability to understand human verbal utterances.”
The study’s lead author, Atsuko Saito, a cognitive biologist at the University of Tokyo, suspected that cats could understand some human communication, just like dogs have been proven to do. In a previous study, Saito found cats can recognize their owners’ voices. But she was curious about whether cats — like her own pet, Okara — could also distinguish the sounds that make up their names, independently of who’s speaking.
So, Saito and her team set out to test the name recognition skills of 78 feline participants. In a series of experiments, the researchers played a sequence of four neutral words, which were all similar in length and cadence to the cat’s name, and measured their reaction before finally calling for the cat by name.
When the neutral nouns were played, many of the cats just zoned out. These cats were demonstrating a concept defined in psychology as habituation, meaning an animal—even a human—will learn to ignore signals that don’t benefit or harm them. However, the cats perked back up at the sound of their names, usually with an ear twitch or head turn, even if the voice on the recording belonged to a stranger and not the cat’s owner. It makes sense that they would be alert to the sound of their names because rewards, like food or playtime, or punishments, like a trip to the vet, often follow.
This held true even for cats who lived in houses with lots of other cats and others residing in a “cat cafe,” where humans pay to enjoy a beverage in comforting feline company. The cafe kitties, however, were worse at telling their own names apart when the first four words in the series were the names of their feline roommates. Researchers speculated that the social environment of the cafe — with many visitors calling out all the cats’ names, and rewarding whichever one comes their way first — might have a lot to do with this disparity, but also noted that they can’t confidently generalize the results from only one cafe.
Of course, this study doesn’t prove your cat actually understands the concept of a name, says Mikel Delgado, who studies animal behavior at the University of California, Davis. “It doesn’t mean that the cats understand that the word is a label for them — just that it is a sound that may predict food or cuddles or attention or something else,” Delgado, who was not involved in the study, told Gizmodo’s George Dvorsky. “That is associative learning and of course all animals are capable of that.”
It also doesn’t mean your cat is likely to come when you call. While some cats responded to their names by turning their heads or moving their ears, fewer than 10% actually got up to move toward the sound. “Cats are just as good as dogs at learning,” John Bradshaw, a biologist at the University of Bristol who was not involved in the study, told Colin Barras of Nature News & Comment. “They're just not as keen to show their owners what they've learned.”
Saito even admits that her own cat doesn’t always respond to her calls. But she prefers to think of this petulance as endearing: “I love cats,” she tells Carrie Arnold of National Geographic. “They’re so cute and so selfish.”