Yes, Cats Probably Know Their Names

By Amber Jorgenson | April 4, 2019 8:00 am
Cat Petting

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Cats are tough cookies to crack. Unlike most dogs, who excitedly run over when you call their names, cats can be pretty dismissive. After being snubbed by my cat for the hundredth time, I start to wonder if she listens to me or even knows her name. Well, new science says that the answer is yes.

Research published today in the journal Nature suggests that domesticated cats do, in fact, know and recognize their names. A team of researchers studied how 78 different cats responded to people saying their names. After testing felines in both single and multi-cat homes, as well as in cat cafés, they found that most cats are able to distinguish their names from similar sounding words and names of other cats. The findings shed light on how we communicate with our furry friends — and also suggest that my cat’s ignoring me on purpose.

Cat Calling

Dogs are touted as humans’ best friends, but cats hold a special spot, too. We started domesticating them about 9,500 years ago and they’ve been cuddling on our laps ever since. Despite our long history together, little is known about cats’ ability to communicate with humans. What we do know is that domesticated cats are more vocal than wild cats, and that their behavior is influenced by their owners’ moods and facial expressions. Cats can also recognize the voices of their owners and find hidden objects when humans point to them. But unlike dogs, apes, dolphins and parrots, their ability to recognize specific words remained up in the air.

To see if cats could distinguish their names from other words, a team of researchers from the University of Tokyo conducted four separate experiments. In each, they had cats listen to recordings of people saying four different words, followed by the cat’s name. The studies were carried out in the cats’ houses and also at an adorable cat café, a new-ish concept that combines two amazing things: coffee and cats.

Feline Phonetics

In experiment one, cats living in single-cat households listened to their owners say four words, each sounding similar to their name, before hearing their actual name. Experiment two was carried out at multi-cat households and at the cat café. Here, cats listened to the names of four of their cat siblings, followed by their own. Experiment three was the same as experiment two, except the cats again listened to four words that resembled their names. Finally, in experiment four, cats in single and multi-cat households listened to a stranger say four words and then their name.

They found that cats in both single and multi-cat households responded to the first word or two that sounded like their names, but got used to the sounds and quit responding by the fourth word. But when they heard their names, the cats perked back up and responded by moving their heads, wiggling their ears and meowing. This happened when both their owners and strangers said their names. Results were similar in multi-cat households, where cats responded to their names after not responding to the names of their siblings. The researchers say that these reactions are evidence that the cats were able to pick out their names when they heard them.

Those in cat cafés were also able to differentiate their names from similar sounding words, but only three of the 10 cats were able to distinguish their names from those of their siblings. The researchers think that, since the cats’ names are listed inside the café, patrons probably call multiple cats at a time, hoping to snuggle whoever’s available. Hearing their names in conjunction with their siblings’ could make it tough for them to figure out which is actually theirs.

For the most part, though, the study shows that domesticated cats know and respond to their names. The discovery sheds light on cats’ ability to communicate with humans and suggests that they’re able to learn specific words. Researchers could test this theory by teaching cats new words and correlating them with objects and places. But even if  scientists are able to train cats, it’s no guarantee that they’ll actually listen to us when we want them to.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Mind & Brain
  • Uncle Al

    Cats are responsive to sibilants – but what’s in it for them? Do you purr when you hold them, do you brush them, do you address their world views?

    Experiment! Take a wide roll of blue tape. Make a hollow square on the carpet, somewhat larger than a cat. Now you know something about a cat.

    • Nom de Plume

      Here’s one you can do on humans, particularly those raised around wood stoves and fireplaces. Note how many choose to back up to it even when there’s no fire and the weather’s mild.

  • NJ2toU

    Of course they do! I have well over a dozen and they ALL know their names.

  • Lee Riffee

    It’s funny when it takes scientists so long to confirm what pet owners have known for ages…..not only do cats know their names, but they also have different ways of communicating with different people. My mother’s cat George never meows or makes any sort of verbal communication with her, because he knows that she won’t respond (because she is partially deaf). He has to get in her face or otherwise make physical contact to get what he wants. But if he wants something from me, he makes all sorts of noises because I can hear him and I respond to the noises.

    Cats also have ways to figure out the things that annoy their owners the most…and that also varies between the people in the household.

    Cats are no where near as stupid as they have been made out to be.

    • Val–Standing

      Our kitty “chatters” randomly all the time to me, as well as my grown daughter.

      His “I want food”I want to cuddle”, and “I don’t want the lights out” when we are going to bed communications are very clear.

  • Nom de Plume

    It’s fun to observe animals. Listen to a mother cat vocalize to her kittens. There’s a distinct call, and sometimes you can hear what sounds like variations. Could mother cats assign names or their equivalent to their kittens? Something to ponder, and maybe study.

    The issue of a study on whether cats can distinguish names sounds “out there,” to put it politely, as anyone who’s spent time around them can observe that they do. We once did an impromptu experiment with a young cat by naming various family members, and watching his turn his head and look at the family member we named. Typical? Don’t know. But something’s going on there.

    Another factor may be how often humans talk to cats, giving the cats an opportunity to learn the sounds of different words and more easy to distinguish from their names. They also seem to be able to learn the meaning of some concrete terms. There’s a way to test for whether they’re responding to words or the tone of voice or other cues: Take a cat raised around speakers of one language and talk to them in another. It’s strictly anecdotal, but we found a cat that took up with us after being raised by Hispanics responded more to Spanish than to English.

    It’s all interesting. As someone who grew up on a farm, animals can be amazing if you just pause to watch them.

  • J.C.

    Our two cats have similar-sounding names but respond individually to their names. One will come running when you call his name from anywhere in the house. Call the other…well, he MIGHT saunter in a short while later. I mean, he IS a cat.

  • Hank Schkorio

    Please consider eating a plant-based diet or being vegan. A lamb and a cow are just cats in a different body. They all want to be loved.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar