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Study suggests cats are capable of learning their own names

Published Apr 4th, 2019 11:07PM EDT
do cats know names
Image: rainerstropek

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Most cat owners would tell you that their furry little friends definitely know their own names. As someone with a cat, I suppose I’d be inclined to believe that the animal I have been calling by name for over a decade does truly know what I’ve labeled him, but science has never been totally on board with that notion.

Unlike past research efforts conducted with dogs, there hasn’t been a ton of scientific effort put into determining whether cats are capable of understanding how names work. Whether any cats can tell the difference between their names and the names of other animals in the same home, or even random words, was something scientists from the Sophia University in Tokyo wanted to find out.

To either prove or disprove the ability of cats to recognize their own names the researchers, led by Atsuko Saito, observed 78 cats in various settings that included individual homes as well as a public cat cafe.

The challenge in determining how to test each animal’s name recognition abilities led the team to devise a somewhat obvious experiment. First, the researchers chose random words and/or other names and repeated them to each animal so that they became used to hearing them. It’s call habituation, and the idea is that once an animal is habituated to a word and realizes that it has no impact on them personally, they essentially ignore it.

Then, the team mixed in each cat’s name with the repeated words, testing whether or not the cats would remain attentive when they heard their own name even in the presence of words that had no meaning to them. The responses of the cats were scored based on how they reacted, with things like ear and tail movement considered positive signs that the animal was recognizing their name.

What the researchers discovered was that while some of the animals did indeed seem to respond to their name while ignoring other repeated words, it wasn’t a universal response. Household cats seemed to respond the most, and were able to tell their own names apart from fellow pets and random words. The cats in the cafe, however, seemed far less interested in their name, potentially revealing that being overwhelmed with stimuli or failure to learn their own names early on in life led caused them to be less responsive.

Even among the household cats, the responses weren’t totally convincing, with some cats responding to random words and others ignoring their own names.

There are still a lot of questions to be answered here, including how an owner’s voice combined with a cat’s name (or even a nickname) affects the responses from the animals, but the study definitely leaves the door wide open for anyone who firmly believes their cat knows its own name.

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