Give this a shot at home: Say four random words to your cat—separated by about 15 seconds—with the same length and intonation as its name. Then say its actual name. If it swivels its ears or perks up its head, chances are it knows what you call it.
That’s essentially what researchers did in a new study. Japanese scientists played recordings of a cat’s owner saying four words with lengths and accents similar to its name before saying the feline’s actual name. The word hihu (Japanese for “skin”), for example, might precede the name “Kari.” As the random words—all nouns—played, the cats became less and less interested. But as soon as they heard their name, most moved their ears and heads; a few even got up (above). The scientists saw similar responses when the cat’s name came after the names of other felines he lived with, or when a stranger spoke the words.
Cats may recognize their names because it’s the word humans say most frequently to them, or because it’s often associated with something positive, like petting or food, the researchers say. Indeed, the only cats that had trouble with the task were those that lived in a cat café, a shop that can house dozens of cats that customers pay to hang out with. These felines could distinguish their name from random nouns, but not from the names of the cats they shared the café with. Perhaps that’s because visitors call the names of many cats, but only “reward” a few with pets or treats, the scientists speculate.
The findings are the first to experimentally show that cats have some understanding of what we are saying to them, the team concludes today in Scientific Reports. Trained cats may understand words like “sit” or “jump,” but it could be because humans are using additional cues, such as hand gestures. The new findings could improve our relationships with our pets, the researchers say; cooing your cat’s name during a stressful vet visit, for example, might help reassure it. Still, whether cats understand that their name is really their name remains unclear. They may just think it’s another word for “treat.”