KYOTO, Japan — Cats often get a bad reputation for being antisocial and fairly uninterested in everything we lowly humans have to say. However, a new study finds cats really are listening and know exactly who their owners are speaking to. Researchers in Japan say cats understand and remember the names of their feline pals — especially when they live together.
A team from Kyoto University found cats not only recognized their own names, but also showed that they can match up names with the faces of other cats they’re familiar with. The findings point to cats having the same ability to learn human words that dogs display — even if cats would rather have their owners think they’re ignoring them.
Cat confusion leads to longer stares
During the study, researcher Saho Takagi and the team examined cats living in multi-pet households. These cats either lived with other domestic cats in someone’s home or in a “cat cafe” where several friendly felines keep customers company during their visits.
Study authors presented each cat with the image of a familiar cat from the same household. They then played a recording of that cat’s name (the “congruent condition”) or a different and incorrect name (the “incongruent condition”).
Results show that cats in multi-pet homes spend more time staring at the image of their friend when the wrong name played. Researchers believe the cats were studying the image because of the confusion over the mismatched name.
On the other hand, cats in cafes didn’t spend as much time examining the mismatched faces. Study authors say this suggests that cafe cats are less familiar with all the different felines living in the busy stores.
“Only household cats anticipated a specific cat face upon hearing the cat’s name, suggesting that they matched the stimulus cat’s name and the specific individual,” the researchers write in Scientific Reports. “Upon hearing a cats’ name, the subjects expected the corresponding face.”
Home life is less hectic
Researchers believe housecats have an easier time of learning name-face relationships, which they learn by observing third-party interactions between their owners, other humans, and their feline roommates. Meanwhile, cafe cats likely pay less attention to other names and faces because they may be living with several if not dozens of other cats and see an endless stream of human faces.
In a second experiment, the team showed each cat the face of a human they live with, while playing another recording of either the right or wrong name. Again, cats spent more time examining the person’s face when they heard the wrong name play. This delay was also longer for cats living in homes with several humans.
“Our interpretation is that cats living with more people have more opportunities to hear names being used than cats living with fewer people, and that living with a family for a longer time increases this experience,” the researchers write. “In other words, the frequency and number of exposure to the stimuli may make the name-face association more likely.”
“This is the first evidence that domestic cats link human utterances and their social referents through every day experiences,” the team adds.
However, the researchers also note that their study only involved 48 cats, including 29 from cat cafes. The team says it’s still unclear how cats learn to associate names with faces. Amusingly, part of the problem revolves around cats being very uncooperative study participants.
“One cat completed only the first trial before escaping from the room and climbing out of reach,” study authors admit.