How Do Cats Know Their Name?

Despite their reputation for ignoring humans, cats have the remarkable ability to recognize their names, even if they walk away when they hear them. Find out how on the blog.
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Cats can identify their names even if they decide to ignore your calls, according to science.

Have you ever considered whether your feline friend has the ability to recognize their names? Cats are not known for responding when called like dogs are. However, if your cat doesn't react when you call its name, it doesn't necessarily mean it doesn't know it.

According to a 2019 study, cats do know their names. Atsuko Saito, a behavioral scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo, spearheaded this study. Despite their reputation for ignoring humans, cats have the remarkable ability to recognize their names, even if they walk away when they hear them.

How Are Cats able to Recognize Do Cats Know Their Names?

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In Saito's study on name recognition, researchers observed cats living in households and cats living in cat cafes. The cats at the cafe could recognize when they were being called by their names instead of general words, but they couldn't tell the difference between their names and the names of other cats at the cafe. The scientists propose that this might be because visitors call out the names of many cats but only "reward" a few with pets or treats. However, the house cats could distinguish their names from general words and other cats' names. This led the researchers to determine that cats can perceive distinctions in human language based on the sounds of the words.

In a previous study, Atsuko Saito concluded that cats can distinguish their owner's familiar voice. In her most recent research, which included 78 cats from Japanese households and a "cat café," she focused on observing how the cats responded to their names.

Saito and her team initially had owners repeatedly utter four words resembling their cats' names until the cats became accustomed to those words and ceased responding. Afterward, the owners pronounced the actual names, and the scientists observed that individual cats living among other cats could differentiate their names. The cats living in a household displayed more body language cues in response to hearing their names, such as meowing or moving their ears, heads, or tails than to similar words or other cats' names, as reported in Saito's April 2019 study published in Scientific Reports.

The scientists also had individuals unfamiliar with the cats say their names. Even though the cats' reactions were not as strong as when their owners called them, they still seemed to acknowledge their names.

The recent study indicates that many felines respond to their names when called by their owners, as stated by biologist John Bradshaw, who used to research human-animal interactions at the University of Bristol's Anthrozoology Institute but was not involved in the project. However, Bradshaw is skeptical about cats being able to recognize their names when called by unfamiliar individuals. He believes that while some cats might be able to generalize between different human voices, more trials are needed to establish compelling evidence.

Saito suggests that the cats in the experiments likely linked their names to rewards or punishments, and she believes it is not likely that the cats understand these sounds as identifying them as individuals. She points out that there is no proof that cats can recognize themselves like humans do. Therefore, their recognition of their name is distinct from human recognition. Nevertheless, it's possible to train cats to recognize other words. Whether this could lead to cats obeying commands similar to dogs is a separate issue.

Bradshaw emphasizes that cats are as proficient as dogs at learning but are less eager to showcase their new knowledge to their owners. The scientific evidence has established that cats recognize their names, although teaching a cat a new name may be necessary.

Why Is My Cat Ignoring Me?

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Now that we know that cats recognize their names, the next question is, why don't they respond when we call them? It's because cats will be cats. Humans often (and unfairly!) compare cats and dogs, but we should not expect similar behaviors from these two species. Cats are independent and generally more aloof than dogs, and they may not always feel the need to respond when you call their name.

Some cats do come running when you call their name. If you have a cat like this, well done! Cats that eagerly interact with you and react to your vocalizations are enjoyable to live with. Such cats are often labeled as "dog-like" because of their additional loyalty to their humans.

Dogs At An Advantage

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According to Saito, cats' enthusiasm for their names does not match that of dogs, who points out that dogs are innately predisposed to react to their names.

Humans have purposely bred dogs to exhibit obedience and receptiveness throughout the ages. Conversely, cats essentially tamed themselves as wildcats tagged along with mice and rats into agricultural settlements. Furthermore, domestic dogs have a 20,000-year head start over domestic cats.

Be Patient If You Change Your Cat's Name

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There may be situations in which a cat cannot recognize its name, such as when you have a kitten that has just been given its first name or when a newly adopted adult cat is given a new name. Newly adopted adult cats may even have been given their third or fourth name, depending on the situation, so it's understandable if they don't respond to their most recent name right away.

If your cat doesn't respond when you call its name, it may not recognize it yet. But the positive news is that cats can readily learn their new name. While your cat would likely learn its new name over time, there are ways to hasten this process.

How to Teach Your Cat Its Name

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You can train your cat to recognize their name using these simple steps:

First, avoid using your cat's name excessively. If you say it too much, your cat may ignore it as background noise. Use the name only during the initial training stages and during dedicated training sessions. Once your cat learns the name, you can use it more frequently.

Next, pair your cat's name with a delicious treat. This creates a positive association between your cat's name and rewards. Use something your cat loves, such as small pieces of plain chicken or their favorite treat broken into tiny bits.

Say your cat's name and give them a treat. Repeat this process ten times within a few minutes, then take a break. As training progresses, mix your cat's name with regular conversation, but only reward them with a treat when their name is mentioned. This will help your cat associate the treat with their name rather than just the sound of your voice. Practice this name game two to three times a day, every day, until your cat recognizes their name.

If you want to check if your cat recognizes its name, try saying the name without having a treat and notice how your cat reacts. You have succeeded if it looks in your direction or starts walking towards you.

How to Tell Your Cat Has Heard You?

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Cats have hearing that is about three times more acute than humans, and their ears can move independently to locate sounds. Therefore, it's likely that your cat did hear you. But they may simply be choosing not to acknowledge you.

It's quite common for cats to be indifferent toward us. Because of their solitary nature, they may ignore us when they are overstimulated or bored.

You may receive a better response when they are called during mealtime than when they are lightly dozing or observing a bird. In essence, they may be more willing to respond when they are motivated when you call them.

Does your cat know its name? Here's how to find out!

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Speak four random words to your cat, mimicking the length and intonation of its name, with a 15-second interval between each word. Then, say its actual name. If the cat reacts by moving its ears or perking up its head, it likely recognizes its name. This is essentially what Saitos and her scientists did in the study mentioned above. According to the researchers, cats may recognize their names because they are the most frequently used words by humans when addressing them or because they are often linked to positive experiences such as petting or being fed.

Why Do Cats Respond to Their Name?

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Studies suggest cats listen more attentively to their owner's voice than to a stranger's. In addition to showing interest in their favorite humans, cats can also understand the emotional content of human speech.

Interestingly, most humans use a different tone of voice when speaking to their cats compared to when speaking to other people, reinforcing the bond between pet owners and their cats. For instance, if you use a gentle voice or a high-pitched tone when calling your cat's name and then giving them food, they will associate that tone with receiving something good.

KittyNook Tip: If you want your cat to be responsive to other humans with unfamiliar voices to your cats, encourage them to call the cat by name and offer an exceptionally tempting treat. Once your cat has accepted the treat from the new person, have them walk away and repeat the process from across the room.

If you found this article about your feline friend informative, you may want to read these as well:

Guide on Clicker Training Your Cat

How do Cats Recognize their Owners?

Will Cat Pee Kill My Cats?

Are Laser Pointers Bad for Cats?

Cats and Cardio: Navigating the Path to Cat Heart Health

You can also browse through our selection of cat toys for your cat!

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