Cats don’t respond to your voice. True or false?

Charlie asks for breakfast

Cats take the lead and don’t respond to commands. Charlie forcefully requests breakfast. Photo and words by Michael

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.

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Cats don’t respond to your voice. True or false? — 9 Comments

  1. Cats do respond to their human care-takers calls. I have observed this habit in my two traditional Persian cats who respond to the voice of their care-taker Sabina.Diaz, my house-keeper. She takes care of the feeding of the cats and they are very prompt whenever she calls them, identical to a obedient dog. I have made my observations over the 6 1/2 year life-span of cat Matahari and 4 1/2 years over the life-span of tomcat Matata. Although both cats are friendly to me they realize that for food its not me but the house-keeper who is the main person in the house.In fact, cat matahari will even try to open the kitchen door by along with Sabina , clawing on the closed door, a very common habit akin to a trained dog.

  2. This is one of my favourite cats poems and says it all:
    I will come when you call
    If I want to!
    I will purr
    If I feel so inclined.
    And we’ll live side by side
    In affection and peace,
    But you’ll never know
    What’s in my mind.

    Yes cats come when we call…IF they want to!
    Of course they know their caretaker’s voice and mostly Walter and Jozef come if either Babz or I call, unless they have better things to do, such as watching a mouse and waiting to pounce. Then we can call until we are hoarse, they don’t choose to come and why should they? When we are doing something important to us we don’t like being interrupted and told to do something else.
    I wish researchers would stop analysing everything and leave cats with the air of mystery that makes them very special and unique to have in our lives.

    • You make a good point. Cats come when they want to. People don’t jump on command. Why should cats? There is an assumption that companion animals should come on command. I don’t think we should have that assumption. People like it but it is not necessarily a good thing.

      • That’s what people like about dogs I suppose, they come when they are called and they take any amount of neglect or abuse and still kowtow to their ‘master’
        I think some people like the feeling of power over their pets, so cats are definately not for them!

  3. Monty comes when I call. Sometimes I just want to check on him and he does come, although sometimes I have to sing to get him to come out. I used to sing when I’d feed him. If for some reason he does not respond, as happens once in awhile, I go into the kitchen and set a plate down on the counter. He magically appears within seconds, announcing his presence with a little, “Meow.” (Anything for me?) I think my cat is more likely to come when called because of his history as a starving feral– he always hopes to be fed.

  4. The majority of my cats will respond to my voice maybe 75% of the time even if it’s only with a glance.
    My 2 biggest responders are Damon (“Hoarder”) and Cora (“Me-me-me”). They don’t care whose name I call, they’re at attention. After all, they may miss something.

  5. They’re responding even when they’re ignoring you. You can bet they hear every move you make and every word you say. if you were opening a can of food the cat would come running. Instead the cat is on it’s on time table about coming to you. This I think is what separates a lot of the cat people from the dog people. If you want a pet to come to your every beck and call, get a dog. Cats see life differently. My only cat who comes when called is Mandy. She knows her name and comes running straight at me when I call her. The others either take their time or totally ignore me. Wonder how many cats are returned to shelters because they don’t jump on a whim?

    • Good point and a really nice photo. Cats are super aware of what is going on around them even though they give the impression they are not.

      They will respond if it is worth it to them.

    • Oh, Elisa. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a picture of Mandy. Torti girls are a favorite of mine. She’s magnificent!
      My favorite artist is Jackson Pollack; but, not even he could have splashed colors that way.
      I named one of my feral torti girls “splash”, and she is similar to Mandy. It’s hard for me to keep my eyes off of her.

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