While many cat owners will passionately argue that their pets can understand what they’re saying, it’s understandable that the rest of us would brush off the suggestion with skepticism. However, as it turns out, cats are quite capable of understanding when their name is called out–even if, in typical feline fashion, they choose to shrug off the call and go about their business.
According to new research from Sophia University in Tokyo, Japan, that was published in Scientific Advances, while cats may not understand human language or the human conception of their name, many are able to pick out their name from a string of words. The research team called their findings “the first experimental evidence showing cats’ ability to understand human verbal utterances.”
Lead author of the study Atsuko Saito, led a previous study in 2013 that found cats are also capable of recognizing their owners’ voice and had long suspected that cats were capable of gleaning at least some understanding from human vocalization–like other animals including dolphins, dogs, and parrots do.
My roommates cat, June loves it when you say her name. *unmute* pic.twitter.com/nBmMeZcklU
— Awwwww (@AwwwwCats) April 1, 2019
Saito told The Guardian:
“There are so many studies about dog ability to communicate with humans. We think it is important to show cats’ ability.”
To test their name recognition skills, Saito and her team gathered 78 domestic house cats from multiple Japanese households and “cat cafés” to see whether their own name–spoken amid a jumble of words spoken in a monotone voice–would elicit any sort of reaction.
As the recording played, the cats first responded with typical cat behavior such an ear twitch, a flick of the tail, maybe the odd meow, before they grew used to the sound and began to ignore it. Various nouns were spoken before and eventually, the cat’s name was mentioned.
The authors wrote:
“These cats discriminated their own names from general nouns even when unfamiliar persons uttered them … These results indicate that cats are able to discriminate their own names from other words.”
However, while house cats were quick to pick up on when their own names were uttered, café cats not only responded to their own names but to those of their fellow residents from the café.
“Cats understand human cues better than many people think,” Saito added.
The research suggests cats have paired the sound of their name with rewards like food and petting. pic.twitter.com/jH8ef74Ezp
— Dose (@dose) April 4, 2019
The study also noted that, while it offered rudimentary evidence of how cats process sound, their response is also the result of conditioning.
The researchers wrote:
“Cats can discriminate words uttered by humans from other words—especially their own names, because a cat’s name is a salient stimulus as it may be the human utterance most frequently heard by domestic cats (cats kept by humans) and may be associated with rewards, such as food, petting, and play.”
The researchers hope that while their study merely scratches the surface of cat-human communication, a further understanding of how cats process human words can allow humans to develop a means to warn cats about the dangers of certain objects or places, and that their work can “potentially enhance the welfare of both humans and cats.”