Cats recognise their human caretaker’s voice but don’t respond, so state reports in newspapers of a new study from the University of Japan. All that cats do is to turn their head and position their ears to show us that they recognise our voice. Is this what you find?
The first point to make is that the summary (‘abstract’) of the study itself, which you can see here, is solely about whether a cat recognises their human companion’s voice. In the summary, there is no mention of not responding by coming on command. It seems the newspapers have made this secondary element of the study – coming on command – the major topic.
Also, although I understand where this research is coming from, I have a slightly different experience.
The test carried out by the Japanese in this study was to have the cat’s caretaker and strangers call their cat’s name when they were out of sight. The cats reacted to all the calls by slight movements of ears, eyes dilation, tail and legs etc. but more so to the calls from their caretaker. Therefore they recognised their human companion’s voice but that’s all. They did not move when called. We know our cats recognise our voice. Well, I do. I have experienced that numerous times.
I agree that recognising the voice but no movement is possibly the standard (default) cat reaction but it is not quite a simple as that.
Firstly, in my experience, cats can move when called and they do come sometimes but there can be a substantial delay. The delay might be 5-15 minutes or more. It seems that the delay factor was not incorporated into this study. If the cat’s caretaker keeps calling and is patient their cat may move and indeed come. It is almost as if the cat is considering the call and working out whether he wants to move. He is making a choice (or a connection) and the desire to move will be based on whether he thinks there is something in it for him i.e. nice food. To me this indicates the domestic cat may be on the way to being domesticated to the same level as the dog. Although Ruth (see comments) makes a good point. Should be want our companion animals to come on command? Is that a good thing?
It depends when and under what circumstances the call is made. If the cat associates something nice with the call such as food or pleasant grooming then he or she is more likely to come to receive that treat. Clearly this is a form of informal training but then that is exactly the reason why dogs come on demand. They have been more generally trained.
The point I am making is that the Japanese study is a little bit too simplistic. It states that the cat domesticated himself and has never been domesticated to obey commands. This is because of that little bit of wildcat independence that we actually find attractive, which is true but, as stated, cats do connect routines with voices. The routine of calling my cat to my side when I am in bed is, an example, for me. He comes because he likes the grooming he receives. The availability of food is normally the motivator for a cat to respond but the voice, the call can be the trigger.
My personal long term study on whether cats respond to your call concludes that cats do recognise their caretaker’s voice and can sometimes, under the right circumstances, respond as well.