Domestic cats can tell the difference between different sounds and if one of those sounds is the sound of their name the domestic cat will distinguish it from other sounds thereby recognising her name. This a major finding in a Japanese study: Domestic cats (Felis catus) discriminate their names from other words. I don’t find it enlightening.
The opening para is my interpretation and the study published on the website nature.com [link]. To be frank, and as mentioned, I do not believe that it provides great enlightenment as to how domestic cats understand our utterances. We know that domestic cats respond to the sound of their name. They do this because normally it is associated with reward e.g. food or pleasure of some sort.
Every reasonable cat guardian has experienced their cat responding to the sound of their name. This, as I understand it, is exactly what the study confirms. Using their own words in the abstract (summary) of the study, they say:
“We conclude that cats can discriminate the content of human utterances based on phonemic differences.”
Phonemic differences means the slight variations in sounds made by the human voice. A phoneme is a unit of sound which can distinguish one word from another.
The study also touches on why domestic cats don’t always respond when you call. It’s not because the cat does not recognise the sound which is their name but is because the cat does not wish to respond. In the words of Tom Whipple, science editor of The Times, “It is because it does not respect you and instead views your life with, at best, cold indifference”.
I think that that is a very harsh and incorrect assessment. The assessment is perhaps biased by inadvertently making a comparison to the response of dogs. There is also an expectation from some pet owners that their companion animal responds quickly and eagerly. This may represent a vulnerability in people. They need a keen response.
In a good relationship between cat and owner, cats do not show “cold indifference”. And the idea that domestic cats don’t respect their human companions is misconceived in my opinion. The concept of respect is a very difficult one to incorporate, from the cat’s perspective, in a discussion about the cat-to-human relationship.
The study found that while cats reliably moved their ears or heads they rarely demonstrated excitement when they heard their name. Their reaction is described as “cautiously wary”. I think this is incorrect too.
If your cat companion is facing away from you and you call her name then she won’t always turn her head towards you. This does not automatically indicate that she is disinterested or disrespectful as the scientists concluded. Rather, the domestic cat is able to turn their ears through almost 180°. Therefore they face the oncoming sound and the cat is able to listen.
If the words spoken by the cat owner are part of a routine with which the cat is comfortable and recognises then the cat will respond because it might mean there is food on offer, or a door is being open, or a lap is being made available for her to sit on. There may be a delay as the cat processes the call. I don’t regard this feline behaviour as very different to human behaviour in this respect. There has to be a reason for a cat to positively respond to the sound of their name as they can’t understand human language. There has to be a routine attached to the sound.
Dr John Bradshaw, the author of Cat Sense, and an expert cat behaviourist commented on this research project. He said that cats do not understand language in a meaningful sense. Well, we know that. I don’t want to be disdainful of Dr Bradshaw’s input but it’s very obvious that cats do not understand English or foreign languages.
He went on to say that “cats are just as good as dogs at learning. They’re just not as keen to show their owners what they’ve learned.”
I would have to admit that cat don’t always respond to the call of their name. They can give the impression that they ignore it. But is this different to humans? Consider two people in a house. One does not understand English. The other calls the person’s name which he recognises. Will he always respond by going to the person?