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Does your cat recognise her name?

Cat and human (https://www.maxpixel.net. Creative commons licence)

But I tell you, a cat needs a name that's particular,
A name that's peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
T.S Eliot

Most people will say that their cat recognises her name when it is called. But does she? Listen to yourself next time you talk to your cat - do you use the same conversational tone that you use when talking with a family member or with the neighbours? Rather than reacting to the sound of her name, it might be that the cat responds to the special tone of voice which people use when talking to their pets. Dogs, apes and dolphins certainly know their own names, so maybe cats do too. On the other hand, dogs, apes and dolphins are, like humans, social animals and names are useful in a group. Cats are much less sociable, so need names less.

So, name or voice - what does the cat respond to? It's the kind of question that ends up being tackled by the men in white coats, and in this case the scientist who stepped up to the challenge was Professor Toshikazu Hasegawa from the University of Tokyo. He and his colleagues gave the matter their full attention, and the results of their research have recently been published.

To get their data, the team studied seventy-seven domestic cats for over two years. The cats were of different ages ranging from six months to 17 years, and all but one were indoor-only cats. (Which is often the case in Japan.) Some cats were from a single cat family and some came from a multicat family of more than two felines. Finally, for reasons which we shall come to, the researchers studied cats from a cat cafe. Cat cafes have become popular in some countries, including Japan. The idea behind a cat cafe is that people who like cats but canít have them for whatever reason can come to a cat cafe, play with the cats and drink coffee while they are at it.

Once they had assembled their research subjects, the scientists moved on to the first question. Can a cat differentiate between her name and other general nouns which sound similar? The words that were chosen were selected on the basis that the cat would probably not have heard them that often. (The reason for using more than one unrelated noun was to familiarise the cats with general speech.) Once a word was uttered, the scientists looked for movement of the catís head, tail and ears as an indication of name recognition.

Most cats scored high when it came to recognising their own people calling their names. But would they keep their high scores if a stranger tried calling them? To keep things impartial, cats could only hear a prerecorded voice.

If the cats steadily lost interest in hearing words other than their names, but responded by moving their heads or ears when they heard their own names, that was counted as a win for name recognition. Cats from households with only one or two cats in the family generally turned out to be very good at recognising their own names - even when those names were spoken by someone they did not recognize at all.

More specifically, the tests showed that when they first heard a humanís voice, the cats showed interest. That response diminished significantly by noun four, because by then most cats had decided that the conversation had nothing to do with them, and treated it as background noise. Then, when their name was finally called, 80% of cats showed a strong response.

There was a weaker but still significant response when an unfamiliar voice was used. (It has already been established that catís can recognize the voices of their own humans.) Cats also knew their own names in multi-cat households, even though their task was slightly more challenging. In the multi-cat households the cats were not only asked to differentiate between unfamiliar nouns and their names, but also between their name and the names of the different cats in the same household. In this case, although the response was statistically significant, the number of cats involved was too small for a definitive result. In general though, cats with a more curious temperament and consistent weak response to other words or names still showed more interest when they heard their own name.

Then the scientists turned to their control group. Unlike cats from ordinary households, cats from the cat cafe did not show any interest when their names were called. This is perhaps because cafes are noisy places and the cats are so habituated to general chatter that they just ignore human voices. Also some visitors to the cafe donít know the catsí names, or give them different names.

So what about those domestic cats which showed no significant reaction to their own names? The researchers believe that these cats might nevertheless recognise their own names. As the lead author of this study points out:

"Their lack of response may be caused by their low motivation level to interact with humans, or their feelings at the time of the experiment," - i.e. the common 'to hell with you' attitude which we all have seen in our own cats from time to time. (Try calling your cat when you have left her alone at home for longer than usual if you want to observe an example of icy feline indifference.)

The research group also suggests that the more the cats interact with their humans in a positive way, the more likely the cats are to respond to their names when those names are called.

Journal Reference:
Atsuko Saito, Kazutaka Shinozuka, Yuki Ito, Toshikazu Hasegawa. Domestic cats (Felis catus) discriminate their names from other words. Scientific Reports (2019) 9(1) https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-40616-4


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