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Do cats recognise their own names?

By , 9 May 2019

a cat responding to its name

Does this cat know its own name?
Image: ©iStock.com/Linda Raymond

Plenty of owners will tell you their cats are smart, compassionate and wonderful creatures. Scientists are curious about whether this is actually the case. Until this year, scientists weren’t even sure if cats knew their own names.

If you own a cat, you might be offended. Your cat responds to its name, right? But does it always come to you, or does it sometimes ignore you? Perhaps your cat responds even when you aren’t talking to them. So how can we test whether cats recognise their own names?

A team of Japanese scientists ran a series of carefully designed experiments to investigate how cats respond to their names. They got owners to talk to their cats and watched for the cats’ responses including ear movement, tail movement and the sounds they made. But there’s more to the task than simply calling a cat’s name.

Every trial, the owner would say several words before saying the cat’s name. Sometimes the words were similar to the cat’s name and sometimes they were the names of other cats that lived in the same household.

The cats would respond to the first word, and gradually ignore their owners as they kept talking. But when they heard their own names, they perked up again! Well a little bit, but not much.

So the results are in. In most cases, cats living in homes know the names we call them. Be comforted the next time your cat ignores you calling their name. They know, they just don’t care.

Do you love pets? Double Helix Issue 32 explores the deep bond between humans and animals. Back issues of Double Helix magazine can be purchased at the CSIRO Publishing website.

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  1. I wonder if it is the tone and pace of the name as we say it. If we just say it with no emphasis, they may not respond. But if we say it in the way that we are calling, they may respond more.
    Anyway, why would they want to listen to a human gas bagging on?

    1. Good points!

      Animals are very good at picking up on tone and emphasis – and that kinda makes sense. I could use all kinds of different words to tell my cat to get off the table, but I’m going to use the same tone of voice every time. That’s one of the reasons this research is interesting – cats don’t just listen to tone, they also recognise specific words.

      If you’re in the mood to read some science, the scientific paper is available here:
      I’m pretty sure it’s accessible to everyone.


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