Housecats are notoriously indifferent, as any owner will attest when they try to call them. However, despite their blasé attitude, cats actually recognize their own names, even if they still walk away when they hear them, according to a 2019 study conducted at Sophia University in Tokyo.
Now, another team of researchers from Japan, this time from Kyoto University, has found that cats can recognize the names of other felines too, as long as they live together.
The study involved 48 very social cats who lived in households with at least three other cats (yes, the Japanese really love their cats!) or from “cat cafes” where up to dozens of felines can live under the same roof.
Each participating cat was shown a computer screen that displayed one of her feline friend’s faces, along with an audio recording that played their caregiver’s voice calling either the displayed cat’s real name or a made-up name that didn’t match the one on the screen.
The cats who heard the name that matched the familiar cat’s face spent less time staring at the computer screen compared to the cats that heard a phony name, which may have perplexed them. According to the researchers, this suggests that cats are capable of associating a specific individual with a stimulus like a cat’s name.
Does that mean that cats can recognize the names of humans too? The Japanese researchers actually ran a separate experiment to investigate this, but this time the results were inconclusive. However, cats from households living with more humans showed more hesitance when the wrong name for a person was called, which suggests they may respond to human names.
“Our interpretation is that cats living with more people have more opportunities to hear names being used than cats living with fewer people, and that living with a family for a longer time increases this experience,” the researchers wrote. “In other words, the frequency and number of exposure to the stimuli may make the name–face association more likely.”
All in all, this study shows that cats are much more responsive and attuned to their social circle than previously thought, though maybe not nearly as well as dogs are. Dogs can respond to human pointing and gaze gestures to locate food or random items and can discriminate between human facial expressions and different human voices.
But neither dogs nor cats likely really understand the significance of names, as in attaching sounds to individuals. Instead, felines probably associate their names or that of other cats with some rewards or punishments.
Next, it would be interesting to see if cats can be taught to recognize other words, which would allow them to respond to commands as dogs do, although that sounds like an uphill battle. There’s no evidence that suggests dogs are ‘smarter’ than cats, however we all know cats aren’t nearly as motivated to impress their owners as canines.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.