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BIG MEWS

A new study suggests cats can recognize their names when you call

cat in bag
AP Photo/Stace Maude
Cat's out of the bag.
  • Sarah Todd
By Sarah Todd

Senior reporter, Quartz and Quartz at Work

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Cats appear to understand and respond to their own names when they’re called, according to a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports. So why is your cat still ignoring you? We turned to an expert, Mittens, a bodega tuxedo cat, to explain the study and its implications. (The following has been edited lightly for clarity.)

Humans are very easily impressed. Consider how much they rave about dogs: How they listen to commands, how they come when they’re called, how some border collie named Rico can differentiate between the names of 200 objects.

I, Mittens, can personally differentiate between over 3,000 objects, but I’m not telling you which ones.

I can, however, tell you a bit about this new study, which reveals one of our species’ trade secrets. (Incidentally, in cat, the word for “secrets” is “mew-secs.” “Can I tell you a mew-sec?” one kitten will say to another, beckoning it closer and closer and then swatting the other kitten upside the head. Humorous.)

And so, yes, it’s true: A group of researchers in Japan, led by Atsuko Saito, a professor in the psychology department at Tokyo’s Sophia University, decided to find out whether 78 of my cat-compatriots could distinguish their names from other words. To do this, they conducted four experiments with household cats and cats in “cat cafés,” poor souls.

In the first experiment, the researchers tested cats’ ability to tell their own names apart from nouns with similar lengths and accents. In the second, the researchers focused on whether cats who lived with other felines could tell their names apart from those of their roommates’. The third experiment basically repeated the first experiment, but focused only on multiple-cat environments, both in domestic residences and in the hellish cafés, which are every respectable felines’ worst nightmare.

The first three experiments all had the cats’ owners say the words. In the fourth, the researchers had an unfamiliar person say similar-sounding nouns and the names of other cats in order to find out if the felines could still pick out their own monikers.

In all four experiments, the study participants read out the cats’ names last. This was so they could allow the cats to first become habituated to hearing words spoken to them in general, then look to see if the cat had a noticeably different reaction when it heard its own name.

WHOA!

My apologies, I was frightened for the briefest of moments. It was that infernal machine that dispenses the small green papers you humans seem to like so much. I do not like the whirring sound it makes. Nothing to make a fuss about, however. Already forgotten. Notice the ease and casualness with which I now lick my paw.

Perhaps you are now wondering how the researchers could even tell whether cats were reacting to their own names in particular. Well, cats are highly nuanced creatures. So the researchers looked at five measurements: whether the cats responded by moving their ears or heads, letting out a meow or some other kind of vocalization, moving their tails, or moving their hind paws more than one step in any direction.

On a sorrowful side note, my friend Carl, a tabby who resides at the bodega down the street, has no tail to swish. He lost it in a boating accident. Yes, some cats enjoy boating. Not Carl, though. Not anymore.

The results of the experiment suggest that cats do, indeed, appear to react differently to their own names than to similar-sounding words. Cats who live in homes can also distinguish their names from those of other cats, but cats in cafés may not be able to do so. The researchers speculate that this may be because at cat cafés, there are lots of human visitors pronouncing cats’ names with a number of variations, making it harder to learn one’s own name. (Humans are notoriously prone to insulting nicknames. I myself have encountered a number of ridiculous pseudonyms, including but not limited to “Mittenface,” “Meepers,” and “Mr. Floof.”)

The researchers also point out that knowing your own name may be less relevant for cats in cafés, since you can get a treat simply by approaching a stranger whether or not your name was the one called. In addition, they note that their experiment only took place in one café.

In my own opinion, cat cafés are deeply de-felinizing places, wherein one inevitably loses one’s sense of identity, individuality, and independence by being forced to cater to the whims of passing strangers proffering snacks. I prefer the bodega.

It might surprise you to know that I have absorbed some statistical knowledge during my time as a bodega cat. The human who works the night shifts is also studying at a local college, and I sometimes browse his textbooks for amusement when I am bored, which is often. And so I must note that 78 cats is a relatively small sample size, and that the researchers measured cats’ responses by their magnitude. That is, a cat might twitch its ears in response to both a  general noun and its name, but so long as the cat seemed to have a bigger ear twitch when it heard its name, the researchers counted it as recognition. This is a nuance worth noting, because, as we know, humans do not exactly have the world’s best senses, and it’s possible that even these well-trained scientists may have missed some of the fine subtleties in my fellow feline’s ear twitches.

The study’s authors suggest that the fact that cats appear to be able to recognize their own names means that they could learn other words, noting optimistically that humans “may utilize this ability positively for cats’ quality of life. For example, perhaps we can get cats to learn that dangerous objects or places are referred to by specific utterances.” But I suspect that you, as an ordinary human, just have one big question on your mind: If we know when you’re calling us, why don’t we come?

Oh, we have our reasons.

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