Previous studies and our own experiences have already told us that cats are capable of learning their own names. A new study out of Japan, however, gives us an even deeper look into cat cognition. A team of scientists at Kyoto University set out to determine whether or not cats can learn the names of other cats, and even people. The new research was published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, and the results are changing the way people perceive our feline pets.
When it comes to animal smarts, dogs usually get all the credit. It’s true that you can train some dogs to recognize and associate names to people and objects, but now we know that this skill isn’t unique to our canine friends. In fact, lead researcher Saho Takagi, suggests domestic cats can learn to recognize names without any kind of formal training.
Their evidence suggests that cats learn simply by listening. Takagi said, “I want people to know the truth. Felines do not appear to listen to people’s conversations, but as a matter of fact, they do.”
To come to this conclusion, the Japanese scientists observed the behavior of 48 cats. The feline subjects either lived in multi-cat households or in cat cafés where they regularly socialized with other cats and people. Each cat was shown an image of a familiar feline (model cat) on a computer screen.
While the picture was shown, a recording of the owner’s voice either said the name of the model cat or a completely different name. The animal scientists then observed the cats’ behavior and timed how long they remained interested in the picture.
Data shows that cats from multi-cat households stared at the computer screen significantly longer when the recording said a name that did not match the model cat. Researchers theorize cats were more interested in the mismatched pictures because they had expected to hear a certain name and became confused and/or intrigued when the familiar voice said a different name.
In a secondary experiment, researchers applied the same concept to learn if the cats recognized human family members’ names. Again, the house cats seemed to be more interested in the pictures when the spoken name did not match the actual name of the familiar person. The data also suggests that these results were most prevalent for the cats that have lived with their families for longer periods of time.
The results for the cats that lived in cat cafés were more inconclusive. It’s speculated that this is because café cats have fewer opportunities for one-on-one interactions. They are exposed to many more felines and people, but their time together is usually brief. The scientists say that the frequency of exposure plays an important role in whether or not a cat learns another’s name.
While we don’t know how it happens, this study suggests that the longer a cat lives with other cats (and humans), the more likely they are to naturally associate those individuals with their correct names. It also helps when there are multiple people in the household, as this provides ample opportunities for the cat to witness interactions and absorb associative information.
The report authors wrote, “Our interpretation is that cats living with more people have more opportunities to hear names being used than cats living with fewer people, and that living with a family for a longer time increases that experience.”
The study is only a glimpse into feline intelligence, but the findings have caught the attention of animal scientists, behaviorists, and pet owners. The next time you think your cat isn’t listening, think again.
There’s a good chance that our cats take in a lot more knowledge than we think they do. They likely know the names of their cat siblings, and your cats probably know your name as well.