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Feline familiar: Pet cats know their humans’ names, say scientists

A new study says that cats link a companion’s name and corresponding face without explicit training - Westend61
A new study says that cats link a companion’s name and corresponding face without explicit training - Westend61

In what will no doubt be welcome news to cat lovers, scientists have found, for the first time, that domesticated felines do in fact know the name of their owners. 

Before now it was known that cats knew their own names, but it remained a mystery as to whether they knew the names of those around them. 

A team of researchers from Kyoto University in Japan sought to find out whether cats know the names of other cats and also those of their owners. 

In the first experiment, a total of 48 cats were recruited (29 lived in a café and 19 were domestic pets) and the felines were shown a photo of a cat they lived with.

At the same time, a stranger would say either the true name of the cat or another, completely unrelated, name. 

The response of the cat was tracked to see if it was confused by the incorrect name and, if it was, it would stare at the image for longer, puzzling over the mismatch. This, the scientists say, is a clear sign that the cat does know the pictured animal’s real name.

‘Expectancy violation effect’

“Household cats paid attention to the monitor for longer when the wrong name was called, indicating an ‘expectancy violation effect’,” the researchers write in their study, published in the journal Scientific Reports. 

This experiment was then repeated but with photos of the owners of 26 newly recruited cats taking part in the second stage of the study.

“This study provides evidence that cats link a companion’s name and corresponding face without explicit training,” the scientists say.

The strength of the connection was stronger for fellow felines than it was for humans, but the researchers are confident that the cats do have some ability to learn their owners’ names. 

Various factors influence how likely it is that a cat will remember their humans’ name, including the size of the family they live in and how long they’ve been with the family. 

The bigger the family and the longer they have been with the group, the more likely they are to remember a name. 

“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 this experience,” the researchers say. 

“In summary, house cats matched at least their companion cats’ names and faces, and possibly their human family members’ names. This is the first evidence that domestic cats link human utterances and their social referents through everyday experiences.”

Further studies required

But while the experts are confident they have shown cats do have a knack for names, they don’t yet know how they learn them.

“These results suggest that cats might understand who is talking to whom in everyday situations. However, it is still unclear how cats learned the name-face association. Further study should address this point,” they say.

“We found that cats recognise at least one companion cat’s name and possibly a human family member’s name. It might be asked what motive cats have for remembering names. 

“One possible explanation has to do with competition. For example, a cat might receive food when the owner calls her name but not when she calls another cat’s name. 

“The fact that humans are probably not in competition with cats might explain the weaker association between human names and faces.

“In conclusion, house cats linked at least two conspecific housemates’ human-given ‘names’.”