Humans have coexisted with cats for thousands of years. However, there is still a lot we don’t know about our feline friends. Have you ever wondered what a cat thinks when you are making cat noises while trying to communicate with it? It could be correcting your grammatical problems in cat language or being irritated because you are not using its name. Yes, the cat next to the one you’re calling may also be quietly judging you.
That sentiment is now supported by science. Scientists have recently discovered that cats and humans share a strong affinity. These complex creatures can learn and recall their owners’ names. They will converse with us and can even track our movements while we aren’t around.
It is even more astounding that cats can understand their names (a skill we usually associate with dogs), and new research demonstrates that this feline talent extends beyond our expectations.
A new study conducted at Kyoto University in Japan tested a lot of cats to see if they recognized their family members, both furry and human. They discovered that cats could recall their names and the names of other cats they are familiar with, as well as the names of people living in the same house.
We usually equate dogs with the ability to remember names. It’s also unusual to believe that your cat that looks unconcerned might recognize your name. Perhaps that shouldn’t come as a shock. Or probably the strangest part is learning that these detached, seemingly disconnected beings have been secretly listening to our conversations all along.
The experiment was carried out by animal science expert Saho Takagi and his colleagues. They randomly selected 48 cats who lived in multi-cat households, either domestic cats who lived with other felines in a multi-cat family or cats who lived in Japanese’ cat cafés,’ where guests can interact with the many cats who live there. Each of the cats was shown a photograph of a familiar cat from the same Café/household (dubbed the “model cat”) on a computer screen.
A recording of the owner’s voice would announce the model cat’s actual name or a fictitious one aloud while they displayed the image.
What researchers found out
The research published in Scientific Reports explained that when a different name was mentioned, cats from domestic households stared at the computer screen longer, which the researchers believe suggests perplexity due to the discrepancy between the model cat’s picture and the name mentioned. But cats from the cat café did not display the same delay at the computer during the study, probably because they shared homes with many other cats (rather than just a handful) and were unfamiliar with the chosen model cat’s name.
“What we found is incredible,” Saho Takagi (currently at Azabu University in Japan) told The Asahi Shimbun. “I want the truth to be known. Although cats might not appear to listen to people’s discussions, they actually do.”
“Only domestic cats predicted a distinct cat face upon hearing the stimulus cat’s name, implying that they associated the stimulus cat’s name with the unique individual,” the researchers reported. “The subjects predicted the corresponding face when hearing a cat’s name,” they added.
The researchers believe that cats learn these types of name-face relationships by observing third-party interactions at home and that cats living in cat cafés – where they may be surrounded by dozens of cats, not to mention a steady stream of human strangers – may not have the same opportunities to learn other cats’ names socially.
The researchers conducted the same experiment with humans
In another experiment, the researchers utilized humans as the stimulus instead of the model cat in a comparable test. In a multi-person household, cats were shown an image of a person they lived with, and the person’s name was mentioned simultaneously, or a different name was mentioned.
When there was a mismatch between the image and the name, cats seemed to pay slightly more attention to the computer screen this time, but the effect was stronger in houses with more people and in families where the cat had lived with the family for longer.
“We think cats that live with a family for a longer period will have more possibilities to hear names being used than those who live with fewer humans,” the researchers say. “In other words, the amount and frequency of stimulus exposures may raise the chances of a name-face association.”
What makes cats recognize our names?
How long the cat has lived with us, and the number of individuals they live with are factors that influence their capacity to remember human names. One would expect cats to find it easier to remember human names if they have been with a family for an extended period. Researchers, however, found that the larger the family, the easier it was for the cats to remember names. The scientists probably believed this because “there are more possibilities for them to hear names being used” in large households.
More research is needed in the future.
While the researchers claim that their study provides “the first of its kind indication that domestic cats link human utterances with their social referents through daily experiences,” the research should be replicated in the future due to the limited sample size of cats.
The researchers ultimately admit that little is known about the particular mechanisms underlying social learning in cats.
“While cats seem to associate names and faces together, particularly for both familiar persons and other cats, we still don’t understand how this is possible in their daily lives. Part of this is due to the challenges of researching cats,” the authors acknowledge.