Spotlight on Science: Domestic Cats (Felis Catus) Discriminate Their Names From Other Words

Hi everyone,

Please find below the latest entry in the Spotlight on Scient by iCatCare:

Authors: Atsuko Saito, Kazutaka Shinozuka, Yuki Ito and Toshikazu Hasegawa

As cat owners we naturally give our pet cats their own names. Sometimes fairly simple names ranging to quite unique and quirky choices! Most owners would agree that their cats seem to recognise and respond to their names when they are spoken but until recently, there has been little scientific evidence to support this claim. Do cats recognise their name or simply their owners voice?

Whilst research into human vocal communication has primarily focused on dogs, studies have found that a range of other species including apes, dolphins and parrots are all capable of recognising spoken words by humans. Yet up to now this has remained untested in cats.

What has previously been studied in cats?

In recent times, research has begun to focus on the cat’s ability to communicate with humans, with just some of the key findings including;

  • Cats are able to find hidden food by following a pointed finger.
  • Cats will look towards a human face in the presence of something scary (known as social referencing).
  • Cats can even show some ability to change their behaviour depending on the positive or negative emotional facial expressions of their owner.

Pretty amazing for a species that only began to cohabit with us 9,500 years ago and who’s main route to domestication was through a process of natural selection rather than by us choosing and breeding specific features, as was the case for dogs.

With research beginning to look further at vocal communication with cats, a previous study found that cats are able to successfully identify their owner’s voice over that of a stranger’s voice. The current study took this work further by investigating whether cats can discriminate their name from other generic nouns, as well as from the names of other cats they lived with.

What were the key findings of this study?

The study found that cats across different settings, including those that lived alone, with other cats or resided at a cat café could all recognise and were seen to respond to their own names when spoken by their owner and were also able to distinguish their names from other spoken words. The cats could also distinguish their names from other words when spoken by the testers who were unknown to the cats. So, it’s not just the owners voice cats are responding to!

The only slight anomaly in their findings was from cats that lived at cat cafés. These cats struggled to identify their own names from those of the other cats they lived with, compared to cats living together in pet homes, and often responded to the names of the other cats they lived with. The authors took this finding to be due to the large numbers of different visitors that the cats interacted with, who often called lots of the cat’s names at the same time, meaning it was harder for the cats to build positive associations with their individual names in this setting. This is a plausible explanation for the finding and suggests that cats need to learn to associate something positive with their individual name for it to have meaning and therefore for them to attend to it. Therefore, spending time teaching our cats their name by pairing it with something rewarding is important for them to learn this association.

Why might this be important for our pet cats?

Evidence that cats are able to recognise their names and discriminate them from other words is an important step in studying the domestic cat’s ability to recognise verbal human communication. Responding to their names is likely to be the consequence of anticipating something they find rewarding, such as a meal being prepared or other enjoyable activity when they hear it. Knowing our cats reliably respond to their names can be important if we need to gain their attention and can be especially useful if we want to teach them other behaviours, such as to come to us when they are called. Whilst we traditionally think of training behaviours as primarily a dog orientated activity, teaching our cats certain skills can also be hugely important and enjoyable for both!

Member of iCatCare’s Feline Wellbeing Panel, certified clinical animal behaviourist and training expert, Linda Ryan explains this further for us…

I think there is great value in making a cat’s name a relevant and positive cue, so as to invite the cat’s attention, create predictable and welcomed human-cat interactions and signal the start of something fun and worthwhile for the cat. We should teach it positively, by pairing saying the cat’s name with something they love, like food, affection or play (and never using it for anything negative, of course!).

In general, training with cats can be great for their welfare! As our pet cats have descended from solitary survivalists, who would have to have been very good at independent problem solving in order to survive, we could say that positive reinforcement training allows cats outlets for natural behaviours, can provide mental and physical exercise, and offer good experiences – both with their environment and people.

Also, individual cats vary between being neophillic (meaning they are exploratory, inquisitive, and curious with new things), and neophobic (meaning that they can be distressed by change and new things). With this in mind, we can use positive reinforcement training to teach cats so-called “life skills”, such as to:

  • thrive and be confident and happy in our human world
  • understand what we would like them to do
  • prevent problem behaviours.

We can teach fun, useful and active behaviours which encourage physical exercise and movement (essential for many cats who live indoors, and to maintain healthy body weight and condition). And, we can teach non-essential things like tricks, which can be mentally stimulating – allowing outlets for those feline problem-solving skills – and create great relationships between cats and their people. We also can teach for preventative and specific husbandry, handling, grooming and veterinary procedures and interventions – thus helping cats feel safe and confident in provision of their essential care. 

Cats can really enjoy training, and it should be as important a part of our lives with them as it is considered to be with dogs. Training with cats, however, is a little different from training with dogs, in that we need to take it slow, work in short sessions, be calm and quiet, allow time for them to enjoy their treats, and provide those treats in a cat-friendly way. When we “think cat” in how we train, it can be a wonderful way to build that bond.”


For open access to a full version of the study please click here

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If you’re interested in understanding more about how cats learn and how to train your cat, we have two courses for those who work with cats which cover this topic in greater detail!

– Advanced Feline Behaviour for Cat Professionals

Advanced Feline Behaviour for Veterinary Professionals

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