Do Cats Understand Their Own Name?

iStock.com/Andrew_Deer
iStock.com/Andrew_Deer

Pet owners often wonder about their animal’s cognitive abilities. Sometimes, dogs and cats seem to display an incredible awareness and sensitivity for their surroundings. Other times, they’ll poop on the carpet while completely ignoring your profanities.

How much they really understand may forever remain a mystery. But according to research out of Japan, cats are demonstrably aware of at least one thing: their unique cat names.

In a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers at Sophia University in Tokyo corralled cats in four separate experiments taking place in their normal household environments or in cat cafes. In the first experiment, cats were subjected to voice recordings of their owners reciting a list of four nouns that sounded superficially like their names before they spoke the cat’s name. In the second, they heard their names as well as the names of four or more cats living in the same environment. A third experiment used a mix of general nouns and cohabiting cats. In the fourth experiment, a stranger uttered their names to see if the cats would still respond in the absence of a familiar voice.

In each test, a majority of the housecats showed an increased response—flicking ears, moving heads—to the sound of their name. That doesn’t necessarily mean they associate words like Mr. Tinkles, Pearl, or Fluffy with their existence. Researchers believe that cats respond to their name because it often precedes food, a treat, or attention. Because they hear the word so often, they associate the sound with something that involves them. Saying their name might be more akin to ringing a bell than filling them with a sense of identity.

And what about the café cats, who had a less consistent response to the sound of their names? It might be because visitors to these businesses use different pronunciations for the cats, or that their feline friends being called can still mean a treat if they get to the customer more quickly. For a cat, what’s in a name isn’t so much a sense of identity as the promise of a reward.

[h/t Business Insider]

Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

iStock/bonchan
iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Why Are Poinsettias Associated with Christmas?

iStock
iStock

Certain Christmas traditions never seem to go out of style. Along with wreaths, gingerbread cookies, and reruns of A Christmas Story sits the poinsettia, a red-tinged leafy arrangement that’s become synonymous with the holiday. Upwards of 100 million of them are sold in the six weeks before December 25.

Why do people associate the potted plant with seasonal cheer? Chalk it up to some brilliant marketing.

In 1900, a German immigrant named Albert Ecke was planning to move his family to Fiji. Along the way, they became enamored of the beautiful sights found in Los Angeles—specifically, the wild-growing poinsettia, which was named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the U.S.-Mexican ambassador who first brought it to the States in 1828. Ecke saw the appeal of the plant’s bright red leaves that blossomed in winter (it’s not actually a flower, despite the common assumption) and began marketing it from roadside stands to local growers as "the Christmas plant."

The response was so strong that poinsettias became the Ecke family business, with their crop making up more than 90 percent of all poinsettias sold throughout most of the 20th century: Ecke, his son Paul, and Paul’s son, Paul Jr., offered a unique single-stem arrangement that stood up to shipping, which their competitors couldn’t duplicate. When Paul III took over the business in the 1960s, he began sending arrangements to television networks for use during their holiday specials. In a priceless bit of advertising, stars like Ronald Reagan, Dinah Shore, and Bob Hope were sharing screen time with the plant, leading millions of Americans to associate it with the holiday.

While the Ecke single-stem secret was eventually cracked by other florists—it involved grafting two stems to make one—and their market share dwindled, their innovative marketing ensured that the poinsettia would forever be linked to Christmas.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER