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]