Yet we still love them!

By Meghan Overdeep
April 8, 2019
Lori Adamski Peek/Getty Images

Got a kitty who refuses to come when you call? If you’ve chalked up Mr. Whiskers’ indifference to the fact that he simply doesn’t know his name, we’ve got bad news for you. According to a new study, felines can no longer claim total ignorance. Scientists say that household cats can, in fact, respond to the sound of their own names.

Japanese scientists said Thursday that they’ve provided the first experimental evidence that cats can distinguish between words that people say, the Associated Press reports.

Atsuko Saito of Sophia University in Tokyo explained that there’s actually no evidence that cats attach meaning to our words—their names included. Instead, they’ve learned to associate their names with things like food, play, trips to the vet, etc. And because people speak to their pets often, cats hear their names a lot. Basically, the sound of their name becomes special.

Saito and her colleagues described the results of their four experiments with 16 to 34 domestic cats in the journal Scientific Reports.  Each cat was played a recording of its owner’s voice, or another person’s voice, that slowly recited a list of four nouns or other cat’s names, followed by the cat’s own name.

Many cats initially reacted by moving their heads, ears or tails, but gradually lost interest as the innocuous words were read. But when they heard their own name, however, the cats perked up.

Kristyn Vitale, who studies cat behavior and the cat-human bond at Oregon State University told the AP that the results “make sense,” and agreed they don’t mean that cats assign a sense of self to their names. “It’s more like being trained to recognize a sound,” she said.

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Monique Udell, who also studies animal behavior at Oregon State, said the study shows “cats are paying attention to you, what you say and what you do, and they’re learning from it.”

So, there you have it, cats really do know when you’re talking about them! Why they often choose not to respond, however, is a question for another study.