Cats may not always act like it, but according to new research conducted in Japan, they do recognize their name when you’re calling it out. On the other hand, we all know if we call out our dog’s name at any given moment they’re liable to start jumping up and down and tackle us in response. So why the different behavior from these animals?
Researchers are always conducting some kind of new research on dogs, as they are easily observable companions that don’t mask their responses or emotions to anything we say or do. In that sense, they’re willing participants in helping us answer many of the questions we may have about them. And anybody with a cat at home will immediately know that felines carry themselves in an entirely different manner, making it easy to see why cats aren’t studied as often or understood as well in the scientific community. According to the new report published in Scientific Reports, researchers in Japan set out to work through that challenge and find out specifically why cats may be a bit tougher to read, specifically by trying to figure out if they can understand the difference between hearing their name and other random, similar-sounding words.
Researchers devised a way to observe cats and test their theories in spite of the cats’ perceived indifference by speaking four "nouns with the same length and accents as their own names.” They then watched to see if the cat acted any different when hearing its name specifically within that four-word group. The four nouns were used as a way for the cats to get accustomed to the sounds, and typically after four words, it’s found that responses start to diminish from cats.
One test included researchers playing recordings of a cat’s owner saying the four words with a 15-second pause in between each word. Then, after all four words, the owner’s voice could be heard saying the cat’s name — all of this done in the cat’s home and with their owner out of view. Another test was conducted by repeating many of the same steps, only the recorded voice was one that would be unfamiliar to the cat. And this time, some of the words repeated would be names of other cats living in the house.
"We conclude that cats can discriminate the content of human utterances based on phonemic differences," the researchers wrote. "This is the first experimental evidence showing cats' ability to understand human verbal utterances."
In other words, cats proved they can identify and recognize their own name, even among other words with similar sounds. However, researchers pointed out that this doesn’t necessarily mean cats recognize their name as something that represents their identity, rather it’s possible they are accustomed to the sound itself and associate it with rewards like food, petting, and play.
"I agree with the authors that it cannot tell us if cats represent their names as a label that identifies them, but it is interesting that they do attend to it as a special signal, probably associated with rewards such as food and petting," Jennifer Vonk, a professor at Oakland University specializing in animal cognition who was not involved in the study told NPR.
Researchers also pointed out that just because cats can likely recognize their name and still don’t respond with the same excitement as dogs, you shouldn’t assume this is an actual indifference or lack of emotion. According to Peter Pongracz, a professor specializing in the study of animal behavior at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, the apparent different responses we get from each animal is highly dependent on the millennia of domesticating and breeding dogs to be obedient animals. While house cats have been domesticated for a long time also, Pongracz added that "Most cats fare really well with humans by simply being cute.” In his opinion, socialization has played a role in how each animal responds to us and in turn, how we’ve responded to them.
"As the Japanese study showed, cats respond to their name with not necessarily a quick run to their owner, but maybe with a simple, subtle twitch of their ears,” Pongracz says.
The ear and head movements are well known as the primary recognizable change in a cat’s body language when responding to our voices. This part of the recent study isn’t actually a new finding at all. A 2017 study on cats’ responses to the voices of owners also pointed out our tendency to speak in a higher-pitched tone with pets, much like how we speak to babies. This is important in familiarizing cats with their own names and our voice because cats have a wide range of hearing and attention to pitch.
“By starting as a kitten, using a harmonic pitch and variation, and possibly a multi-syllable name in association with food rewards, we should get a better response from our beloved felines (which could be anything from an ear twitch to running to us). As cat lovers we know, we simply need to accept graciously whatever they choose to do,” writes Ken Lambrecht, DVM. Lambrecht adds that we should really only expect a cat to respond based on their own whims, typically because they’re hungry and have learned that their response will earn them food. It adds to the understanding that cats communicate by necessity, while we’re used to (and tend to prefer) the way dogs react to our voices and commands, as we’re both social (pack) animals that aim to please. In the simplest terms, a cat responds to your voice and its name when there’s motivation to do so. And simply hearing its name isn’t motivation enough.
So don’t take it too personally when your cat doesn’t come raining straight into the living room when you call out to him or here. It’s nothing personal, and in fact something as simple as the twitching of their ears can be their way of letting you know they’re listening.