A lot goes into choosing a name for a feline friend, but do they even know that we're calling them when we use it? Usually, dogs clearly show when they do and don't understand the words that we use, but cats are a little harder to read.
Studies have shown that cats do recognize their names. But, they typically only reply when it's said by someone they're close with. Additionally, their replies are often displayed through their body language. Therefore, if you're unsure whether your cat understands you, you should familiarize yourself with how they communicate.
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Do cats know their names?
According to a 2013 study published in Animal Cognition, cats do know their own names. But, they may not respond when just anyone says their name. The study took place in Japan, where Tokyo-based Sophia University behavioral scientist, Atsuko Saito studied 20 domestic cats. All of the cats replied using non-verbal signs of recognition — like moving their heads and ears.
In a more recent study published in Scientific American, Saito and her colleague Kazutaka Shinozuka worked with 75 cats, their owners, and strangers in a cat cafe. They repeated four similar-sounding words with the house cats' names. Then, they said the cat's actual names and looked for body language cues. They used this to determine how the cats reacted to the sound of their name. What they found was that the cats displayed non-verbal and verbal cues. The cues included meowing and tail twitching when their names were stated in their owner's voices. These behaviors weren't shown when similar words were stated or when strangers said the cats' names.
Why is my cat ignoring me?
If your cat isn't coming to you when you call them it's likely because they've formed a negative or unpleasant association with that word. This could be due to you using their name when you're upset with them. Or their negative reaction could be from having received some form of punishment together with their name being used. An example of this could be saying, "Bonkers, no!" when you push them off your workspace when they want attention.
Cats have also been known to respond better to their owners than other people. If you have other people in the household that your cat is more bonded with, they may just choose to respond to that person.
When looking for signs that your cat understands you, it's important to consider the differences between dog and cat behavior. Dogs very clearly show name recognition by bounding over to us when we call them. But communication is a bit different with cats. Generally, cats show attention and positive interest in something by displaying specific body language. This includes keeping a straight tail posture, flat fur, forward-facing ears, offering eye contact — along with other body language cues.
What if I change my cat’s name?
When people adopt a new cat they may wonder if they should keep the name they came with or give them a new one. The answer to this just depends on who you ask. There is no official right or wrong way to go about this. Some people believe that changing a cat's name allows them to make new associations in this new phase of their life. This certainly rings true since cats (like dogs), form negative or positive associations through language. So, if your cat used to have their name screamed angrily anytime they hopped onto the counter and you use that name to try to call them, chances are they will not respond. They have formed a negative association with that term.
Changing a cat's name won't be harmful or necessarily confusing for a cat. However, it will take some time for them to learn it. You will have to help them associate their new name with something positive for them to respond when you use it. Positive associations are built more easily when a reward is offered each time they react "correctly". The best reward will depend on that specific cat's preferences. Some cats love treats, while others may prefer praise or attention.
How to teach your cat their name
Teaching your cat their name is not much different than teaching dogs their names. Cat owners should aim to build positive associations around their cat's name to teach them that something pleasant comes with hearing it. A positive association is most easily created by offering something that your cat considers to be high value. This can be treats, praise, verbal acknowledgment, or playtime. Additionally, enrichment activities like climbing, chasing, and sniffing can be highly enjoyable for cats. Therefore, using their name during these times can also help them trust a human voice.
Cat name recognition FAQs
Do cats like it when you say their name?
Many cats like it when their name is used by their owners, so long as they have good feelings associated with the experience. If a cat constantly hears their name being yelled in an angry tone, or if their name comes with punishment, it may end up triggering a fearful reaction.
Do cats know who their owner is?
Yes. Cats will usually respond more to their owners and can recognize them by their voice, smell, and on sight.
Can cats tell the difference between their name and other words?
Many cats can. Cats can even learn simple commands like sit, come, and high five with proper training.
Cats can understand their names, and most will respond more when their owners are the ones using it. Felines show understanding through body language. This includes eye contact, ear twitching, meowing, or head turning. You can teach your cat their name by forming a positive association with it. This can be done with the help of rewards like treats and praise.