More than 3,000 years ago in Egypt, a tabby called Nedjem is thought to have roamed the royal household of Thutmose III. History doesn’t record whether Nedjem — whose name means ‘sweet’ or ‘pleasant’ — learnt to respond when called. But a study published on 4 April in Scientific Reports1 suggests that at least some modern housecats can distinguish their names from similar-sounding words, although they register recognition with the merest twitch of the head or ear.
“Cats are just as good as dogs at learning — they're just not as keen to show their owners what they've learnt,” says John Bradshaw, a biologist at the University of Bristol, UK, who specializes in human–animal interactions.
The study took advantage of a technique known as ‘habituation–dishabituation’, commonly used in animal-behaviour studies. Atsuko Saito, a cognitive biologist at the University of Tokyo, and her colleagues visited 11 households with pet cats (Felis catus) and asked the owner to read a list of four nouns to their pet. These words were of the same length and rhythm as the cat's name.
Most cats showed subtle signs that they were paying attention at first, by moving their head or ears. But by the fourth word, many had essentially stopped listening and their physical response was less pronounced. When their owners uttered a fifth word — the cat’s name — Saito’s team watched closely to see whether the pet displayed a stronger physical response than it had to the previous word.
The team found that 9 of the 11 cats showed a statistically significant (albeit subtle) heightening of their response when they heard their names. That alone does not prove that the felines recognized their monikers: a cat might have shown a stronger response to its name because that word was more familiar than others used in the test.
To explore this possibility, Saito’s team repeated the experiment in four households that each contained five or more cats. This time, the first four words each cat heard were the names of its co-habiting felines; the fifth was the cat’s own name. Just 6 of the 24 cats showed a gradual reduction in their physical response as the list of names was read out.
This might indicate that most cats in multi-cat households attach meaning, and the possibility of a reward, to any familiar name, and so remain alert. But all six of the cats that stopped paying attention during the roll call showed a significantly stronger response to their own name, suggesting that at least some cats discriminate their moniker from others.
In a follow-up experiment in a 'cat cafe,' where customers watch and play with cats, 3 of 9 animals showed a heightened response to their own name.
“I think the sum total of results across the studies provides compelling evidence that the cats’ names are of special significance to them,” says Jennifer Vonk, a cognitive psychologist at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.
But Bradshaw stresses that the study doesn’t suggest that cats actually understand human language. What it shows is that cats can discriminate between sound cues. “It’s a giant step from there to language, which would have to include grammar and syntax,” he says.
Some cat owners might be sceptical that their pet shows any ability to recognize its name. And not all cats in the study did so, while even those that did registered their recognition in ways that are easy to miss.
Owners “should not be disappointed in their cats if they don’t respond as hoped”, says Dennis Turner, director of the Institute for Applied Ethology and Animal Psychology in Horgen, Switzerland.
Vonk, who owns several cats, often debates with her husband whether their pets know their own names. Turner says that both of his two cats seem as likely to respond to the other’s name as their own — particularly at feeding time.
Even Saito has had mixed results when it comes to calling her cat, Okara, by his name. “I think he has the ability to recognize his name,” she says. “But whether he responds to it or not depends on situations and his feelings.”
Saito, A., Shinozuka, K., Ito, Y. & Hasegawa, T. Sci. Rep. 9, 5394 (2019).