You spend a ton of time deciding on the perfect name for your cat, but when you go to use it, your adorable feline just stares blankly and doesn’t come on command. This might make you wonder: do cats know their names?
Does your cat not respond because she doesn’t know her name, or is she well aware but just can’t be bothered?
Cats are independent and self-efficient creatures who evolved as lone hunters. However, they are also social beings. While they may come across as aloof at first glance, we humans simply need to learn to read their specific feline language and accept them as the unique beings that they are.
Do Cats Know Their Names?
Spoiler alert: Yes, cats do know their names. Cats often associate their name with either a reward (such as food, attention, petting, or play) or punishment (being scolded or put in a carrier). Thus, they may recognize the word as holding an important meaning but may not necessarily attribute that word to themselves. But how do we know for sure?
What the Research Says
A 2019 Japanese study showed that cats can decipher their own name from three other similar-sounding words, demonstrating that cats can discriminate between specific words and sounds that are phonetically different. The cats in the study moved their heads and ears differently in response to their own names in comparison to the other words spoken to them. Therefore, cats have been proven to possess the intelligence and capability to understand humans and our words.
Cats have also been shown to recognize the names of other cats in their household, especially their closest feline companions, as exhibited in a 2022 study. However, this differentiation and recognition was not as strong in a cat café setting where cats get attention even if they respond to another cat’s name and where they hear different cats’ names pronounced differently by various visiting humans.
This 2022 study supports the findings of a 2013 study from Japan in which cats were demonstrated to recognize the specific sound of their owner’s voice and know that their name is different from that of other cats. Cats also respond to other people (including strangers) who say their name but less so than if their owners say their name. This study also provided evidence that cats may associate their name as a positive verbal signal rather than self-identify with it.
While these studies show insight into behavior and cognition in cats, more research about these subjects is significantly lacking in cats. Cats are very intelligent, but they choose to focus on what they value to be the most important thing at that point in time, which may not always be what humans deem valuable.
Another reason why scientists have a difficult time quantifying feline intelligence is because many cats don’t typically enjoy experimental studies and choose not to participate. If they don’t feel like engaging with humans, are bored, or are preoccupied with something they deem more important, they may not respond.
This finicky cat behavior holds true whether during a research study or at home when a pet parent is calling out a cat’s name: a cat’s prerogative is to decline a response if the reward of obeying is less enticing than what the cat is doing (be it eating, sleeping, or playing). Cats know what to do when a command is given but don’t always see the value in providing humans with feedback.
How to Tell if a Cat Knows Their Name
While some cats (often termed “dog cats”) will gladly trot over with a greeting when their name is spoken, not all cats will come when called. In fact, only about 10 percent of cats come when called. As previously discussed, cats know their names but don’t always feel the need to offer a response.
Therefore, pet parents should observe the (sometimes subtle) body language cues that show that cats understand their own names.
A cat may become increasingly alert, especially close to feeding time, when a pet parent says their name. A subset of cats may meow in response to their name being called, like a game of Marco Polo. Most felines will move their body, head, or ears in the direction of a person when they hear their name being called.
But look closely or you might miss these signals. Certain cats may only quickly perk or twitch the ears, much like an ephemeral head nod. Some kitties may simply offer a sudden swish of the tail as evidence of acknowledging their name being called.
Many cats also show more of an affinity to names that end in a “y” or “ie” sound, resulting in a stronger response when this name is called. This may be because it sounds more like a mewing sound that kittens make. Therefore, you may notice your cat responds to the nickname “kitty” far more readily than to their actual name.
How to Teach a Cat Its Name
Cats may, at first, ignore the sound of their names or command to come when called if there isn’t anything rewarding in it for them. Therefore, part of the art of training cats is teaching them to pay attention to something.
The key is to use positive reinforcement to help a cat associate its name with something pleasant, such as a treat, toy, or petting (if a cat enjoys physical contact).
Avoid punishment, especially when saying your cat’s name to ensure your kitty does not begin to associate their name with something negative. If this happens, your cat may stop responding altogether.
When you first start teaching your cat their name, don’t say your cat’s name except during training sessions or else your cat will begin to filter out its name as background noise.
How to Do It
Step 1: Start by saying your cat’s name clearly once and then give a treat or praise within 3 seconds. Easily consumed treats your cat really enjoys, such as small bits of plain chicken or Churu treats, are best.
Step 2: Repeat this about 10 times in a minute and then offer your cat a break. You may also pair this lesson with clicker training. If a cat seems bored or unwilling, stop and try again later. Be consistent, and your cat will begin responding to its name in no time. Remember to watch out for body language cues that signal your cat is comprehending its name.
Step 3: Once your cat is consistently responding, you may start to mix saying her name with other words and sounds during your training sessions to ensure your cat will be able to decipher her name from other words.
Eventually, you can cut out treats every time your cat responds to her name and only offer them on a random, occasional basis. If your cat starts to slip, it may be time to brush up with a training reminder.
If you have a young kitten or newly adopted older cat that had a previous name, be patient when trying to teach those kitties their new names. Ideally, try to use a pet’s old name to help them transition to their new home environment. Once that pet is comfortable, you may then start to teach a new name.
More Important Than Name Recognition: Bonding with Your Pet
What a bummer when you put a lot of effort into choosing the perfect name, and your cat doesn’t respond! However, if your cat never seems to learn or care about its name, don’t sweat it. Your kitty is perfectly smart enough and will display its bond with you in different ways.
The majority of cats merely tend to communicate and respond in a largely non-verbal way. So just let cats be cats and appreciate them for the unique species they are.
If you need validation regarding your cat’s feelings for you, look for relaxed body language as proof your cat is content and cared for. For instance, if your cat is exposing their belly to you, they feel safe and secure in your presence. A cat loaf position, in which a cat is snuggled on her abdomen with her feet and tail tucked underneath her, is another display that your cat is likely comfortable and relaxed around you.
Your cat may also seek attention by following you or wanting to play or be petted and may curl up in your lap or near you – all signs your cat is enjoying your company. Some cats may also head butt, knead, or lick their pet parents. Kitties may also look at you with soft, slow blinks; this behavior is analogous to your cat blowing you a kiss and is a strong sign your feline friend adores you.
Pet parents can help strengthen their bond with their cats by providing for their basic needs. These steps include providing proper nutrition, regular veterinary care, clean litter boxes, and setting aside play time. It’s also important to use positive reinforcement when training and avoid punishment. If a cat’s needs are met and you build a strong bond, they’ll likely respond to you when you call out their name.