Give cats time to respond to your call

Part of the following news headline is wrong: “Cats recognise owners’ voices, they just choose to ignore them”. The headline from the Metro newspaper is a reference to a Japanese study that was published a while ago (Domestic cats (Felis catus) discriminate their names from other words – lead scientist: Atsuko Saito).

In essence, the study found that cats recognise their names or to put it in the language of Dr Saito: “We conclude that cats can discriminate the content of human utterances based on phonemic differences.”

Put another way cats recognise their names when spoken by their owners regularly. To me, this means that cats recognise the sound of their name and the sound depends on the person making it. Most switched on cat owners know this.

The scientists also concluded that cats failed to respond enthusiastically. Or they recognised their owner’s voice by e.g. turning their head or their ears, but did not respond to it substantially. This implies that they are aloof and disinterested and even disconnected from their owner as they are essentially solitary. It is the apparently disdainful feline attitude which the newspapers have latched onto. I disagree with them based on personal experience.

Although, it appears that the study was conducted in the homes of cat owners and not in a laboratory setting which was wise and cat behaviour is very dependent on whether they are feeling secure in their home range or unsettled in a strange place.

Cat in the study
Believed to be one of the cats in the study. Photo by Atsuko Saito
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats


The first point to make is that domestic cats can be trained. If the reward is good enough they’ll respond to a command. And this is the main point I’d like to make. Cats do respond to a call i.e. substantially, and come provided (1) they recognise that the reward is worth the effort and (2) you allow them time to process the request to come (3) there is a sufficiently strong bond between cat and caretaker. The third point is linked to the first.

While writing this I called my cat over to come on the bed with me. He loves to be with me when I am working. It took him about 2-3 minutes to respond and arrive on my lap but arrive he did. There is what appears to be a delayed response in domestic cats. This may be because humans measure cats by the standards of other humans because they treat them as little humans and family members. It is about expectation management.

If we call a human child to come they may pause but they come fairly promptly or the parent expects it. We can’t measure the response of our cats by the standards of a human child or adult. If there is a loving relationship and if there are well rehearsed routines in place combined with a meaningful purpose a cat will usually come on command. It depends to a certain extent, too, on the cat’s personality and intelligence.

And people should accept that cats have choices. I don’t want to anthropomorphise cats but they do make choices. If they don’t want to respond they don’t. There is no requirement that they should respond all the time to human commands.

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Useful tag. Click to see the articles: Cat behavior

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