In the evening you stand in your kitchen and call your cat “Fifi! Fifi!” and your cat, Fifi, comes running from upstairs where she has been lounging on your bed all afternoon. Did she actually just recognise her own name or does she just recognise your voice and know it is time for dinner?
This is something that many cat owners have wondered about and until recently, has not been well researched. However, ask the very same question about dogs, and you’ll find that this has been researched extensively and suggests that dogs can definitely recognise their own name, but that they also respond to the tone of voice used. Is it the same for cats? Could you call “Silly” in the same tone you call “Fifi” and get the same response?
Cats started living with humans about 9,500 years ago and we still don’t fully understand each other’s communications. Humans mainly use verbal communication in spoken and written language, while cats heavily depend on smell, touch and subtle body language such as the position of the tail and ears - this presents a bit of a problem! Several studies into human/cat communication have certainly highlighted some ways in which we are slowly learning to understand each other including:
Domestic cats have developed vocalisations that are more pleasant for humans to listen to than those of their ancestor, the African wild cat.
Humans are a vocal species, and we tend to pay more attention to vocalisations than to body language. Did you know that adult wild cats don’t often meow to other cats? Meowing is actually a vocalisation kittens use to communicate with their mother. Domestic cats have learned to meow at humans for the same reason they meowed at their mother – to get food and attention.
Cats can find hidden food by following the pointing finger of their owner, which is a typical human gesture.
Cats can recognise their owner’s voice and can respond to facial expressions and mood of their owner.
Researchers from Japan have recently studied the ability of cats to recognise individual words – particularly their own name. A cat’s name is usually the word they hear the most associated with them and is often connected to a rewarding experience such as food or attention. So their name is the word they are most likely to be able to tell apart from other words. The results are really quite exciting for cat lovers!
The researchers tested whether cats could distinguish their own name from words that had the same length and tone and found that yes, they could.
They tested whether cats could tell their name from other cats’ names in multiple cat households and found that yes, they could.
They tested whether cats could tell their name from other cats’ names in cat cafés and found that no, generally they couldn’t. This was possibly due to there being too many cats and the utterance of the cat’s name was not consistent enough with rewards such as attention or a treat.
They tested whether the cat could distinguish their own name from other words if it was spoken by somebody who wasn’t the owner and found that yes, cats can do this!
So, there we have it. Yes, cats certainly do have the ability to distinguish their own name from the names of other cats and other words of a similar length. Why not test it out on your cat and see if you get a response? And now you know, when you’re standing in the kitchen calling “Fifi”, and she doesn’t come… she’s likely just ignoring you!
Such an interesting study and hopefully more research will be conducted into human/cat communication.
The full article can be found at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-40616-4