17 May 2019

Do Cats Know Their Name?

The three cats, from left, Rex, Boss
and Lassie, ready to respond.
Welcome back. In 2011, I blogged about the three cats we once had (Time for Pets--Cats and Time for Pets--Cats Revisted). I included an excerpt from a note I’d left for a new pet sitter: Age and weight are causing [Lassie] to rethink her life, but she's the only one of the three who knows and will respond to her name, presuming she feels like it.

Did Lassie really know her name? I had to wait until 2019 to get an answer.

Cat Name-Discrimination Study
Researchers affiliated with Japan’s Tokyo, Musashino and Sophia universities and the RIKEN Center for Brain Science investigated the ability of domestic cats to discriminate words uttered by humans, especially their own names.

They conducted four experiments, using a habituation-dishabituation approach.

In each experiment, they presented four different words to each cat as habituation stimuli, expecting the cat’s response to decrease over the four words. (In essence, the cat would likely perk up for the first word, then eventually lose interest.)

They then presented the test stimulus, the cat’s name, monitoring for habituated cats to dishabituate--for their response to rebound from the fourth word to their name. That would indicate the cat discriminated its own name.

Do you really think I’ll
come running if you call?

(Jasmine, the Sphynx cat, from
Vacuuming with Cats Photo Addendum)
Cat Experiment Logistics
The five words were recorded beforehand and played serially for the cats at 15-second intervals. The cats’ responses were videotaped and analyzed for type (ear moving, head moving, vocalizing, tail moving and displacement) and magnitude.

Testing was done where the cats lived, mostly in family households or a “cat café,” a business establishment where visitors interact with cats. The cat being tested was not isolated from cohabiting cats. Some cats participated in more than one experiment at least 2-weeks apart.

The researchers collected key data about the cats tested, e.g., sex, age, mongrel or breed, neutered or not, how long it had lived with the owner, how many other cats it lived with and owner’s gender. All were indoor cats but one.

Cat-Experiments and Results
Experiment 1 tested 16 cats living in households with 2 or fewer other cats. The stimuli--4 general nouns and the cat’s name--were recorded by the cat owner. Eleven cats habituated, and 9 of the 11 responded significantly to their name.

Experiment 2 tested 34 cats, each living with 4 or more other cats; 24 in households, 10 in a cat café. The habituation stimuli were the names of 4 cats cohabiting with the test cat. All stimuli were recorded by the cat owners. Fifteen cats (6 household, 9 café) habituated, and 9 of the 15 (6 household and 3 café) responded significantly to their name.

Experiment 3 tested 29 cats, each living with 4 or more other cats; 20 in households, 9 in a cat café. The stimuli--4 nouns and the cat’s name--were recorded by the cat owner. In all, 21 cats (14 household, 7 café) habituated; 13 of the 21 cats responded significantly to their name.

Experiment 4 tested 33 cats, each living with 5 or fewer other cats; 30 in households, 3 in university labs. The stimuli--4 nouns and the cat’s name--were recorded by two women unknown to the cats. Twenty cats habituated, and 13 of the 20  responded significantly to their names. 

Habituated cats’ mean response to stimuli in (a) Experiment 1, (b) Experiment 2, (c) Experiment 3 and (d) Experiment 4; bars are standard error, asterisks indicate significant differences (P<0.05); from www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-40616-4.
Wrap Up
So, do cats know their names? The household cats that habituated to nouns or other cats’ names generally responded significantly to their own names--they discriminated their names. Café cats also discriminated their names from nouns but not from cohabiting cats’ names.

Did I hear you say, Vet?
(Boss, from Time for Pets--Cats)
To be clear, there’s no evidence cats attach meaning to their names. They learn that when they hear their names, they’ll be rewarded (food, play) or “penalized” (a visit to the vet). The sound of their name becomes distinct, even if they don’t attach it to identity.

Will cats come if you call? In the experiments, the cats’ typical response was moving their ears and heads; fewer than 10% demonstrated vocalization, tail movement or displacement. Why come if there’s no guarantee of a reward?

I never took Lassie to the vet; Vicki handled that. Lassie only hesitated to come when I called as she got older (and heavier). Thanks for stopping by.

Study of cat name discrimination in Scientific Reports journal: www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-40616-4
Articles on study on TIME and Scientific American websites:
Related study of cats recognizing owner’s voice: link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10071-013-0620-4

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