Cats are notorious for their indifference to humans: Almost any owner will testify to how readily these animals ignore us when we call them. But according to a study published Thursday in Scientific Reports, domestic cats do recognize their own names—even if they walk away when they hear them.
Atsuko Saito, a behavioral scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo, previously showed that cats can recognize their owners’ voices. In her latest study she narrowed this down, investigating whether they respond to hearing their names. The study included 78 cats from Japanese households and a “cat café.” (Such cafés, where patrons can interact with felines, are popular in Tokyo and have started to catch on in London and New York.)
During their experiments Saito and her colleagues used what behavioral psychologists call the habituation-dishabituation method. This involves repeatedly exposing a subject to a stimulus (in this case a spoken word) until the subject no longer displays any reaction. Then the subject is presented with a test stimulus (in this case, its name), and researchers observe whether it reacts. This step helps rule out responses to random stimuli.
For the new study, the scientists first had cat owners repeatedly say four words that were similar to their cats’ names, until the cats habituated to those words. Next the owners said the actual names, and the researchers looked at whether individual cats (when living among other cats) appeared able to distinguish their monikers. The cats had more pronounced responses to their own names—moving their ears, heads or tails, or meowing—than to similar words or other cats’ names.
Then the researchers had people unfamiliar to the cats speak the names, to test whether the cats still recognized them. Although their responses were less prominent than when their owners called them, they still appeared to recognize their names after being habituated to other words.
“This new study clearly shows that many cats react to their own names when spoken by their owners,” says biologist John Bradshaw, who studies human-animal interactions at the University of Bristol’s Anthrozoology Institute and was not involved in the new study. But Bradshaw says he is less convinced cats can recognize their names when spoken by someone unfamiliar. “I think that it’s entirely possible that some cats are able to generalize between one human voice and another, but I’d like to see more trials before I’d say that the evidence is compelling,” he says.
Saito says she thinks feline pets learn to recognize their names because of what is in it for them. “I think cats associated their names with some rewards or punishments,” she says—adding that she thinks it is unlikely the cats understand their names are attached to them. “There is no evidence that cats have the ability to recognize themselves, like us,” she explains. “So, the recognition about their name is different from ours.” Still, she says, it may be possible to teach cats to recognize other words. Whether that could allow humans to train cats to respond to commands—as dogs readily do—is another matter.
“Cats are just as good as dogs at learning,” Bradshaw says. “They’re just not as keen to show their owners what they’ve learned.” Most cat owners would probably agree.
Editor’s Note (4/11/19): This article has been updated to reflect Atsuko Saito’s current affiliation.