Do cats recognise the human-given names of their cat friends?
SCIENTIFIC STUDY AND COMMMENT: The answer to the question in the title is YES according to a Japanese study concerning multi-cat homes. The Japanese researchers wanted to know whether domestic cats have the ability to link a name given to another cat in a multi-cat home with a specific cat. To put it another way, in the interests of clarity, do domestic cats recognise the names given to their cat friends and co-specifics in a home where there is more than one cat?
Note: communication between cats and humans is a 2-way street. Cats make sounds – their own version of the meow – and their owner understands the meaning aided by the context in which the sounds is made.
In earlier research it was confirmed that cats recognise their own name as given by their human caregiver. I don’t think that earlier research was particularly enlightening because every reasonably experienced cat caregiver knows that their cat responds to their name. This recognition will vary from house to house and from owner to owner depending upon the bond between human and the quality of caregiving. However, the ability of a cat to recognise their own name is accepted as it is for dogs.
My understanding is that this study went further to try and find out whether cats were also able to recognise names given to other cats in the household. And as mentioned in the first sentence the answer is yes. They tested for recognition of the names of two other cats and so it seems that this study was limited to recognition of two other names provided to two other cats in the same home.
Secondly, the researchers wanted to know whether cats could link names given to people with the appearance of that person. The answer this question is slightly less conclusive.
However, the underlying message from this study is that domestic cats are probably more able to understand human language through the sounds of the language than most people think. And I would argue that this is about the sound that people make when they say the name. It is not about understanding human language per se.
In the words of the scientists: “In conclusion, house cats linked at least two conspecific housemates’ human given “names”. The word “conspecific” means an animal of the same species, i.e. other cats in a multi-cat home.
The researchers asked how cats learned names but they didn’t answer the question! It seems more research needs to be done on that. I have already answered the question above, however ?. They do state that when dogs learn names and attached names to people and other dogs, they “dissociated lexical and emotional prosodic information in human spoken words, similar to humans, which might facilitate language learning. Prosodic factors might affect cats in the same way.”
The word “prosodic” means in this context “the patterns of stress and intonation in a language”. Not sure what they’re saying there to be honest because in my experience cats respond to sounds; the way, in terms of intonation and stress, that we say their name. They also respond to other calls that a person might make when, for example, asking whether they would like a treat. But the sounds are in context as well, in my opinion. The understanding comes from the sound of the words spoken in the context in which it is made. This is about the rhythms of the cat-human interactions.
I have to say, that, for me, it is common sense that a cat will learn to understand these forms of communication. They understand what their owner is going to do at certain times of the day (their actions, not sounds) if their owner does the same thing every day. That is to be expected and it happens. I think it is a similar learning process to understanding the sounds that people make.
In the words of the scientists, they asked: “Do non-human animals learn to associate human speech with specific objects in everyday life?”
In this instance by ‘human speech’ they mean the names given to people and cats and for ‘specific objects’ they mean other cats and people. Their answer in the summary is: “This study provides evidence that cats link a companion’s name and corresponding face without explicit training”. Without explicit training means that it just happens through self-learning. Cats are pretty good at picking up patterns of behavior both in the form of sounds and actions.
Study title: Cats learn the names of their friend cats in their daily lives. Scientists: Saho Takagi, Atsuko Saito, Minori Arahori, Hitomi Chijiiwa, Hikari Koyasu, Miho Nagasawa, Takefumi Kikusui, Kazuo Fujita & Hika Kuroshima. Date of publication in journal Scientific Reports: 13 April 2022.
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