The key to the question, “How do cats learn their name?” is another question: “Does a cat have a conceptual understanding of what the name is?” I realize that this is a question upon a question but I believe that it goes to the heart of this matter.
I believe that cats do not have a conceptual understanding of what their name is or means as it is a human concept. They don’t learn their name in a human way. But cats learn quite quickly through observation and sound that when their human owner makes a specific sound (their name) they are to go towards their owner because there will be something good at the end of that short journey. In other words it is a sort of Pavlovian response.
I may be a little cynical but this is the simple matter of a cat self-training himself based upon reward. Obviously a cat’s name has a certain sound when made by their owner and the owner is calling their cat for a specific reason. If that reason is because the person wants their cat to be with them, that in itself is a reward because if there is a strong relationship between cat and owner, being in contact and communicating is pleasurable for both parties.
What I’m saying is that a cat’s name has a certain sound about it and the cat is not responding by thinking ‘my owner is calling me by my name’ but responding to the sound in a one-dimensional way: to go towards his owner because she knows that the behavior will bring some sort of reward and often it will be food or warmth or perhaps play. These are all pleasurable events for the cat. The motivation to respond to the name may be to seek a feeling of security. If the cat is outside and called from inside the home the reward for the cat is the security of the home.
The position is different for dogs it seems to me. A study from 2009 indicated that they can learn up to 150 words which is about the size of a two-year-old’s vocabulary. A dog might recognize the name but again I tend to prefer the idea that dogs recognize specific sounds more than having a conceptual understanding of what a name means. Accordingly a dog will recognize her name as a sound that can be distinguished from other sounds but not understanding that the sound is her name.
If we are honest I think if we expect a cat or dog to recognize the conceptual understanding of the meaning of their name I think we are asking them to understanding a human language which is unreasonable.
One last point that I wish to make. Some people say that cats don’t respond to their name when called. They say that cats decide to respond or not and often don’t. I believe the situation is different. Cats do respond but they take longer to act upon the call compared to dogs who respond instinctively and quickly because they are pack animals and they are responding to the leader, their owner. Cats are independent and take longer to process the sound of their name.
I have had to figure this answer out myself because I could find nothing on the subject in the excellent library of books that I have.I was therefore very much appreciate any input given by visitors to this page including disagreement of course.
P.S. My cat comes on my call. I trained him to do it and it is quite easy because it is reward based.