Do cats know their own names?
Come here, Fluffy, you silly cat.
Fluffy, I've got a treat. It’s your favorite.
Fluffy, meanwhile, is sitting four feet away, wide awake and staring at the wall, as if no one was talking to her at all.
Does this sound like any of your cats?
Science says cats recognize their names
The fact that you are reading this article means you are wondering what I was wondering when I researched this post. Maybe your cat isn’t smart enough to know his own name, and that’s why he doesn’t come when called, or even turn his head. Maybe he has a hearing problem. Or maybe he's just ignoring you.
I don’t know if this is good news or bad news, but science says that your cat does know her name. The lack of a response to her name is…your cat being a cat.
The scientific experiment that proved that cats know their names
Atsuko Saito, a behavioral scientist from Sophia University in Tokyo settled the question for us once and for all. Cats are her favorite animal (“They’re so cute and selfish,” she told National Geographic, ) and so she conducts all of her research on cats.
In 2019 she conducted research on name recognition in cats using 78 individual cats in Japanese homes and cat cafés.
This is how she did it.
First, Saito and her colleagues chose four words that were similar to each cat’s name, having the same length and cadence. They repeated those four words to a cat over and over again until the cat got bored and tuned them out.
Then they had the owner say the cat's actual name and the researchers noted whether or not the cat perked up to that sound. They were looking to see if the cats meowed, turned their heads, or even swished their tails when their owners spoke their names.
Researchers also tried the experiment using strangers. After repeating the non-name words until the cats lost interest, the scientists had someone the cat doesn’t know use the cat’s real name.
Researchers concluded that the cats absolutely recognized their own names when spoken by someone they know. Cats responded less consistently when strangers called them, but still appeared to recognize their names.
The café cats didn’t do as well as the “owned” cats with the experiment, especially when researchers used the names of their kitty companions as the four “similar” words. It’s possible that café guests are in the habit of calling to a particular cat but rewarding whichever cat comes by when a name is called, and thus the café cats have been inadvertently trained to respond to all the names.
What does a name mean to cat?
Names are more than just words to us humans. They become attached to us. They become part of our identity.
We don’t know that cats feel the same way about their names as humans. Their cat parents did not baby talk their names to them when they were kittens. Their cat friends don’t use the name to invite them to parties. Cats never went to school and heard their name when roll was being called, and they’ve never seen their name on a driver’s license, diploma, or résumé. Names may be a distinctly human construct.
But the names we give them do have a kind of special meaning for our cats. We use their “special word” when we call them for breakfast, cuddles, or playtime. Cats know that when the name-word is used by us that it often means something is going to happen to them. And so they take notice. Sometimes.
So, whether they know it is their name or not, the way we think of our names, they know their name is a special word and it applies to them.
Why don’t cats respond to their names the way dogs do?
In our house, we have about 40 different pet names for our dogs and they’ve learned to respond to them all in addition to their “real” name. Why are dogs so much more responsive to their names than cats?
Well, for one thing, dogs were domesticated long before cats were, some 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, compared to only 7,000 years ago for cats. We domesticated sheep and goats before we got around to cats.
And we made a real effort with dogs, breeding them to respond to us and obey us. Cats we left to their own devices. So long as they were killing vermin, we let them do their own thing.
Even now we treat our dogs differently than our cats. We take dogs to obedience school (using their names all through training). We include them in our lives, walking them, and taking them places, introducing them to new things and new people.
Until recently, most cats lived primarily outdoors, only coming inside at bedtime or if the weather was bad. Now that cats are spending more, if not all, of their lives inside our homes and getting cozier with people, we can expect them to continue to evolve in their social connections with us. Future generations of house cats are likely to be even better at reading us and responding to us than the cats of today.
Cats know their owners’ voices
Cats not only know the names we give them, they know our voices. Saito conducted an earlier study on cats to determine whether they recognized their owners’ voices.
For each of 20 cats, Saito and her researchers played recordings of strangers’ voices followed by the cat’s owner’s voice, and recorded how the cats responded to the sounds.
The cats in the study tended to vocalize or move their tails to the sound of any human voice. But when their owners voices came on the recordings cats responded differently, turning their heads or ears toward the sound.
“This result indicates that cats are able to use vocal cues alone to distinguish between humans,” the study concluded.
Cats may act like they don’t even know us. But they do. They really do.
Just because a cat knows his name, doesn’t mean he’ll come when called
One thing the researchers in Saito’s study noted was that just because a cat knows her name, doesn’t mean she’ll come when called.
Fewer than 10% of the cats who responded to their names actually got up and moved toward the person calling them.
The bottom line is, if you want a dog, get a dog. If you want an ear twitch when you call a name, get a cat.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
 Arnold, Carrie. “Cats Know Their Names-Why It's Harder for Them than Dogs.” Animals, 4 Apr. 2019, www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/04/cats-recognize-names-dogs-pets/.
 Burakoff, Maddie. “Cats May Recognize Their Own Names-but It Doesn't Mean They Care.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 5 Apr. 2019, www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/cats-may-recognize-their-own-names-it-doesnt-mean-they-care-180971892/.
 Beam, Christopher. “Which Animal Did We Domesticate First?” Slate Magazine, Slate, 6 Mar. 2009, slate.com/news-and-politics/2009/03/which-animal-did-we-domesticate-first.html.
 I. Adachi, H. Kuwahata, et al. “Vocal Recognition of Owners by Domestic Cats ( Felis Catus ).” Animal Cognition, Springer-Verlag, 1 Jan. 1970, link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10071-013-0620-4.