Does your cat know their name?
Poppy? Molly? Charlie? Luna? If you’ve called your favourite feline one of these names then you’re totally on point. These are currently the most popular names for cats, according to Cat’s Protection Big Cat Name Survey. Although, when it comes to the naming of a cat, it’s very much a personal decision – and for those who want their pet’s name to stand out from the cat crowd, anything goes. The more unusual monikers revealed in the survey included Couscous the puss puss, Lord Puddington and Miss Fizzy Whiskers...
However, whatever name we choose to bestow upon our beloved pet cats, does it make any difference to them? Do they actually understand that they’re called Alfie or Bella or even Archibald von Snugglemuffin?
Most owners would argue that of course they do and, while there’s a general consensus that cats do seem to recognise and respond to their names when they’re spoken to, there’s been little scientific evidence to support this observation.
While 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 this has remained untested in cats – until now.
In a Spotlight on Science article for feline welfare charity International Cat Care, authors Atsuko Saito, Kazutaka Shinozuka, Yuki Ito and Toshikazu Hasegawa report on the latest research into cat-human communication. The article states:
In recent times, research has begun to focus on the cat’s ability to communicate with humans, with 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
The authors note that all this is: “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.”
And, while a previous study found that cats are able to successfully identify their owner’s voice over that of a stranger’s, the latest research project went one step further – by investigating whether cats can discriminate their name from other generic nouns, as well as from the names of other cats they live with.
Top 10 cat names
Source: Cats Protection Big Cat Name Survey, based on 34,000 responses
Felines really do understand human words
The authors report that: “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 study discovered that cats that lived in cat cafés were the only felines who struggled to identify their own names, compared to cats living together in pet homes, and often responded to the names of the other cats they lived with. The researchers concluded that this was most probably because of 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.
The authors observe: “This is a plausible explanation 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.”
The value of training your cat to respond to their name
The authors also point to the many benefits of training your cat to respond when you call their name: “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. 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.”
Certified clinical animal behaviourist and training expert, Linda Ryan, a member of iCatCare’s Feline Wellbeing Panel, adds: “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!). 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.”
Cats Protection has these top tips on how to train your cat to respond to their name >>
- In a calm, quiet area with no distractions, stand up with your cat freely in front of you and have a small pot of their food by your side – remember when using food for training, adjust their regular food intake accordingly to avoid overfeeding.
- Say your cat’s name and, if they look at you, say ‘yes’ in a positive, happy voice and quickly give them a bit of food (ideally within two seconds of them looking at you).
- If they break their gaze, repeat step two again to further reinforce that positive association with their name.
- 4. If your first training session has been successful, repeat steps one to three in a series of short sessions (ideally no more than three minutes long) over the next few days. Try not to use your cat’s name outside of these training sessions as it could confuse them.
- Once your cat has got the hang of it, repeat the training sessions but stand further away from them or do it sitting down instead. This will help them to learn to respond to their name in other contexts too. Make sure these changes are gradual as they could get distracted by a sudden change.
- When your cat is reliably responding to you in every training session, you can then start varying the reward you give them. Try offering a toy, access to the garden, or a stroke (if they enjoy this) instead to reduce the reliance on tasty treats.
- Finally, you can start adjusting how often you give them a reward, reducing it to every other time and then every third time they successfully respond to their name. Just make sure you don’t suddenly stop the rewards altogether, as they will stop responding too!
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