Whats in a name? For cats, recognition

April 30, 2019
Maureen McKinney, Associate Editorial Director

dvm360, dvm360 June 2019, Volume 50, Issue 6

Curious? Clearly. Aloof? Absolutely. Unintelligent? No way. A new study proves that your feline veterinary patients recognize their own name. Of course, thats no guarantee that theyll bother to acknowledge it.

Cats may have been domesticated 10,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean we know much about what or how they think. That's because cats are notoriously difficult to study in controlled experiments, largely because they just can't be bothered to cooperate.

But that doesn't stop researchers from trying. And sometimes they do learn a thing or two.

In Japan, investigators recently attempted to learn whether cats could distinguish between their own name and random, similar-sounding words. What they found may surprise you.

Hey, Fluffy. I know you hear me …

In a series of experiments led by cognitive biologist Atsuko Saito and her colleagues at the University of Tokyo, cats heard either their owner or a stranger reciting four random (recorded) words followed by their own name with a 15-second interval between each. The words used were similar in length and rhythm to the cat's name. In some of the experiments, the “random” words were the names of other cats living in the household. The cats' reactions were recorded to look for ear and head movements and tail swishing, all of which are telltale signs of recognition.

The reason for saying four words before saying the cat's name was to habituate the cats to hearing words spoken. Cats often react to the spoken word, but their response diminishes after four words. Therefore, a reaction from the cat upon hearing the fifth word, its name, indicated to investigators that the cat could distinguish its own name from other words.

Surprise! Cats know their name

Most of the cats moved their head or ears in response to hearing their name. This, the investigators said, showed that the cats could pick out their own name among similar words. This was true whether the words were spoken by the owner or the stranger.

“Cats can discriminate the content of human utterances based on phonemic differences,” the investigators wrote in the April issue of Scientific Reports. “This is the first experimental evidence showing cats' ability to understand human verbal utterances.”

What remains uncertain

Although this study proved that cats clearly responded to the sound of their name, what remains unclear is whether cats understand that the word they are reacting to represents their identity. It's possible, the investigators said, that cats simply associate hearing their names with good things like treats, petting or play.

So even though Fluffy may not identify as Fluffy, she knows that the word carries a special meaning.

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