Naming your new kitten or cat is no easy feat. So it’s only natural for pet parents to wonder: Do cats know their names? According to experts, cats can recognize and respond to the names we lovingly gave them—but they don’t always choose to respond.
By looking into the workings of the feline mind, we can gain valuable insights into how cats interpret their names and why they might choose to selectively respond.
- Cats do recognize their own names (as long as the name is tied to positive reinforcement).
- Cats can also identify and remember vocal patterns.
- Clicker-training can help cats to understand their name and associate it with a positive experience (treats, toys, attention).
Do Cats Recognize Their Own Name?
Yes! According to Teresa Manucy, DVM, a veterinarian at VCA Fleming Island Animal Hospital, cats can recognize and differentiate their name from other household pets’ names. She says this recognition is likely due to positive reinforcement or a cat’s association of their name with attention, food, or play.
What Do Cats Respond To?
Lisa Radosta, DACVB, a veterinary behaviorist at Florida Veterinary Behavior Service, reiterates what cat lovers already know: Cats are highly intelligent. Paired with amazing ears that can swivel almost 180 degrees and move independent of each other, cats can hear and respond to more than just their names.
Cats Recognize Their Humans’ Voices
If it seems like your cat readily responds to your voice but ignores your roommate, you might be on to something. Cats can identify and remember unique vocal patterns, Manucy says. “This means that a cat may respond to a favored family member better than to a less familiar guest,” she explains.
Radosta says this was demonstrated in a 2013 study of 20 cats that were challenged to recognize their pet parents solely by voice. The researchers discovered that when presented with four different voices, one of them their pet parent's voice, the cats showed a clear preference. They directed their gaze and head toward that voice while gradually ignoring the voices of strangers.
“This ability allows cats to distinguish who is family and who is not,” Radosta explains. “It’s another cue that cats use to understand how to live safely and happily in our environment.”
Cats Recognize Tone of Voice
The tone we use when calling a cat can influence how much attention they pay to us. Our tone of voice can be associated with emotion—including positive or negative outcomes, which applies to all animals, not just cats, Radosta says.
For example, she says, if a pet parent uses a high-pitched voice to call their cat and rewards them with something they enjoy, the cat will respond positively. However, if the same high-pitched voice is associated with something negative, like a bath or being put into a carrier, it can elicit a negative response from the cat.
Cats Recognize Other Words, Like ‘Dinner,’ ‘Treat,’ and ‘Bed’
We can't say for sure what cats understand or don’t understand. However, we know they are curious creatures who use context clues to adjust their behavior.
For example, if you routinely announce dinner and then feed your cat a meal, they’ll learn that “dinner” is associated with food. For this reason, Radosta recommends not pairing cats’ names with anything that might have a stress reaction, like “vet,” “car,” or “carrier.”
Why Is My Cat Ignoring Me?
Unlike dogs, cats are independent by nature. This might explain why they ignore us even when they recognize their name being called. You can test if a cat recognizes their name by calling them without additional signals, Radosta says. If they respond by turning their head or orienting their body toward you, they recognize their name.
However, Manucy says some cats are simply more independent, distracted, or stand-offish than others, which can contribute to their occasional indifference.
How To Teach Your Cat Their Name
According to Manucy, one way to teach a cat or kitten their name is to associate it with positive experiences, such as by saying their name before giving them a treat, toy, or attention.
Clicker-training cats can also be effective, especially in households with multiple cats or kittens. The key is to help your cat understand that their name has significance, and when they hear it, it means we’re seeking their attention. To reinforce this, say your cat's name and immediately click and reward them when they look at you. Name-training cats together reinforces their understanding and may help them distinguish between their individual names.
Teaching Your Cat Other Directions
“Cats who know and respond positively to their names are also ready to learn new things,” Radosta says. “It’s easy to get their attention and engage them in tricks or other activities.” Once your cat knows their name, try some of these practical and fun training activities:
- Recall. Pairing a cat’s name with a hand signal indicates immediate stop of an activity, like munching on house plants, and coming to you. If your cat walks on a leash and harness, a recall cue is a great safety resource.
- Target stick. Once you have your cat’s attention, direct them to a spot you’d like them to go, using a clicker target stick, like a mat where they’ll be brushed.
- Parking spot. Teach your cat to stay in a safe spot when needed, such as when guests enter and exit your home.
- Fist bumping. Just for fun and enrichment, teach your cat silly tricks like high fives and fist bumps.
Often misunderstood as aloof or aggressive, cats are incredible animals capable of learning and communicating with us in many ways—when we put in the work and patience to understand them.
Featured Image: iStock/rai
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