Most cat parents put a lot of effort into deciding on the perfect name for their new family member — it’s a lifelong decision, after all. For some people, their cat’s name comes to them immediately after they meet their new furry friend, but for others, it can take a few days, or a few hours searching on Pinterest, to decide on the perfect name. But does your cat recognize their well-thought-out name? And do they know when it’s your voice speaking it? Research says, yes, they probably do, to both questions.
Your Cat Knows Your Voice
When it comes to communicating with their human, cats are usually more on the subtle side than dogs who rush in for hugs and pets as soon as you step in the door. But they do probably know, just by your voice, that it was you who walked in the door, according to one study published in Animal Cognition.
The researchers looked at whether cats could recognize whether it was their owner or a stranger saying their name. To test the theory, the researchers played three different voices saying the cat’s name and then their owner’s voice. The owner was out of view during the experiment, and the cats’ reactions to the voices were recorded and categorized.
Interestingly, the cats responded to all the voices with orienting behavior (they moved their ears and/or head) not communicative behavior (they vocalized or moved their tails). But, just as the researchers hypothesized, the cats did show a different response when their owner said their name, indicating that they recognized their owner’s voice versus a strangers. They may not have “talked” back (displayed communicative behavior), but they did show signs that they knew that was their special person speaking.
Hey, That’s My Name!
So, cats can recognize their owner’s voice, but do they know their own name? The same researchers conducted another study, published in Scientific Reports, to determine if cats could distinguish their name from similar sounding words. This included whether it made a difference if it was their owner or a stranger saying the words and whether the response changed if they lived in a multi-cat household or not.
Once again, they found that most cats showed an orienting response to their name rather than a communicative response. They found the cats did respond differently to their name versus when their owner said four general nouns that were the same length and accent as their name. Displaying a behavioral response to their name occurred whether their owner or a stranger spoke, and it also didn’t matter whether they were from an only-cat or a multi-cat household — they still knew their name. The only time things weren’t so clear was when the names of other cats who lived with the test cat were mentioned along with the cat’s own name (for cats living with four or more other cats).
The authors concluded that for cats to show a response to their name being spoken, their name must mean something to them. It’s likely that they associate their name with good things (e.g., food, cuddles, playtime) and possibly bad things (e.g., a trip to the veterinary clinic, bath time), because their pet parents are probably using their name when those good or bad things occur. Their name is probably also the word that is spoken directly to the cat the most.
Who’s My Favwat Fluffy Wuffy?
The two studies mentioned previously showed that there are some clever kitties out there who know their name. But does that mean they’re listening to their owners all of the time in case they hear their name? Or can they tell when their owner is speaking directly to them and not a human family member? It turns out that the tone of your voice gives your cat a clue as to whether you’re talking to them or not.
Another study published in Animal Cognition looked at whether cats can tell when words spoken by their owner are directed toward them or not. In other, uh, words, does your cat know when you’re talking to them versus a person? The study was based on the observation that pet parents tend to talk to their pets in a similar way that they talk to young humans (i.e., baby talk). The researchers labeled the way pet parents talked to their cats as “cat-directed speech” and to adult people as “adult-directed speech.” The researchers wanted to see if cats really do respond better to cat-directed speech (child-like conversations) and if the cats’ responses changed when it was their owner or a stranger speaking to them in that way.
They found that the cats did respond differently when their owners used cat-directed speech vs. speech used for addressing adult humans. But the cats didn’t discriminate between the two types of speech when a stranger spoke — the cats only responded to cat-directed speech when it came from their owner. This research shows that there is a special bond between cats and their owners, and that people and cats do develop their own form of communication.
So even though your cat may not come running every time you call their name (or never in some cases), they probably did hear you. Watch their ears and head — do they move slightly when you call their name or talk to them in a certain tone of voice? Those subtle movements could be your cats way of saying, “Yes, I hear you” — even if they then choose to ignore you!
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