They may act aloof, and generally behave as if they live on a higher plane of existence than us mere humans. But cats are more present than we might sometimes think.
Even more amazingly, cats can recognize their own names (an ability we mostly associate with dogs), and now new research shows that this feline feat goes much further than we realized.
In a new study, scientists discovered that in addition to knowing their own names, cats also appear to recognize the names of other cats they’re familiar with, and may also know the names of people who live in the same household.
That may sound a bit strange – to think that your cat might know your name – but dogs can be trained to remember the names of hundreds of different things, so perhaps it shouldn’t be that surprising.
Maybe the weirdest bit is realizing that these aloof, seemingly disengaged creatures have been surreptitiously listening to us talking all this time.
“What we discovered is astonishing,” animal science researcher Saho Takagi, now at Azabu University in Japan, explained to The Asahi Shimbun.
“I want people to know the truth. Felines do not appear to listen to people’s conversations, but as a matter of fact, they do.”
In experiments, Takagi and fellow researchers studied cats who lived in multi-cat dwellings, being either domestic cats who lived with other felines in a multi-cat household, or cats who lived in ‘cat cafés’ in Japan, where visitors can interact with the numerous cats who live at the establishment.
In the tests, the researchers would present a cat with an image of a familiar cat from the same household/café (called the ‘model cat’), showing the cat’s photograph on a computer screen.
While the image was displayed, a recording of the owner’s voice would say the name of the model cat aloud (called the ‘congruent condition’), or say a different name (the ‘incongruent condition’).
What the team found was that cats from domestic households spent longer staring at the computer screen during the incongruent condition, perhaps because they were puzzled or intrigued by the mismatch of the model cat’s image and name.
However, cats from the cat café didn’t show the same delay at the computer during the experiment, maybe because they lived in dwellings with numerous other cats (not just a few), and were perhaps less familiar with the chosen model cat (and its name) as a result.
“Only household cats anticipated a specific cat face upon hearing the cat’s name, suggesting that they matched the stimulus cat’s name and the specific individual,” the researchers write in their paper.
“Upon hearing a cats’ name, the subjects expected the corresponding face.”
The team thinks cats probably learn these kinds of name-face relationships by observing third-party interactions at home, and it’s possible that cats living in cat cafés – surrounded by potentially dozens of cats, not to mention a stream of human strangers entering the café – don’t have the same opportunities to socially learn other cat’s names.
In another experiment, the researchers conducted a similar test, but used humans as the stimulus in place of the model cat. Cats were shown an image of a person they lived with (in a multi-person household), and at the same time the person’s name was spoken, or another name was said in the incongruent condition.
This time, cats again seemed to attend to the computer screen slightly longer when there was a mismatch between the image and name, but this effect tended to be greater in households that had more people living in them, and in households where the cat had lived with the family for longer.
“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 explain.
“In other words, the frequency and number of exposure to the stimuli may make the name-face association more likely.”
It’s worth noting that while the researchers claim their study presents “the first evidence that domestic cats link human utterances and their social referents through every day experiences”, this is still a rather small study all told (involving only dozens of cats), so the results warrant replication in future research.
To that end, the team acknowledges that we still don’t know much about the specific mechanisms behind social learning in cats.
While the animals in the study appeared to associate names and faces (for both familiar people and other cats), we still don’t really understand in any definitive sense how they develop that association in their living environments.
Part of that simply comes down to the difficulties of studying cats, which the authors duly note.
“One cat completed only the first trial before escaping from the room and climbing out of reach,” they write.
The findings are reported in Scientific Reports.