My cat, Porkchop, has a number of dog-like qualities. For example: He greets me at the door when I come home. When I spend too much time working at my desk and not paying attention to him, he trots up behind me and taps me on the shoulder, begging with big green eyes for me to throw the toy. He sometimes likes to have his tum scratched. And if you find him in an accommodating mood, he will come waddling over when you call his name.
That last habit has been a particular point of pride for me, evidence that Porkchop is a very smart boy. According to a new study, though, most cats know their names. It’s just that they don’t always care to answer to them.
Atsuko Saito is a psychologist at Tokyo’s Sophia University and an avowed cat person. “I love cats,” she told National Geographic. “They’re so cute and so selfish. When they want to be touched, they’ll come by me, but when they want to be left alone, they’ll just leave.” Saito has spent a lot of time studying cats, and her previous research — much of it focused on how our house gremlins respond to our voices, especially when food is involved — suggested that they may understand their names.
Saito decided to test the theory directly, visiting cats all across Japan. One test group included kitties living with just a few feline companions, or none at all; another comprised households with four or more cats; and another was made up of cats living in cat cafes. In each scenario, researchers watched the way their subjects responded — if they got up upon being addressed; if they moved their ears, tails, or heads; if they mewed in apparent recognition — to gauge whether or not they registered the words being said to them.
In the smaller cat communities, researchers played their subjects recordings of their owners (and of strangers) saying four words that sounded, in rhythm and length, like the cats’ names, and then the names themselves. Of the 11 kitties tested, nine tended to perk up when called correctly; to weed out the possibility that the cats simply responded to the most familiar-sounding noun in the bunch, Saito and her team applied the experiment to the many-cat households.
This time, the cat captives were read the names of their fellow feline roommates before they heard their own. Just six of the 24 cats involved in this round seemed to stop paying attention as their peers’ names were read out, only to snap to attention when they heard their own monikers. Researchers suggested that these subjects may have come to associate all their names with a looming reward — food, pets, play — and therefore sustained attention throughout the procedure.
Cafe cats, however, had more muted reactions to their own names compared to the names of other inhabitants, suggesting that cats’ comprehension of their own names may have something to do with the context. Owners often call their cats at meal times, for example, but also when the cat must be corralled into its carrier for a trip to the vet, or scolded for shredding all the toilet paper. Name recognition may be attached to the expectation of rewards and punishment.
In any case, Saito told National Geographic, the reason why dogs have built this reputation for obediently answering our calls is that we have relentlessly domesticated them in our image, whereas cats domesticated themselves. (Because they love us, and the rodents that stalk our settlements.) “Cats are not evolved to respond to human cues,” Saito told New Scientist. “They will communicate with humans when they want.” And they will also ignore us when they want.