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Cats Are Aware of Their Names

Study shows the ability of cats to discriminate spoken human words based on familiarity and phonetics


 
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Dogs and cats are the two most common species which are domesticated by humans. It is estimated that worldwide more than 600 million cats live with humans. Though many studies are available on human-dog interaction, the interaction between domestic cats and humans is relatively unexplored. Studies on mammals including dogs, apes and even dolphins have shown that these animals understand some words spoken by humans. These mammals are considered naturally social and they have a higher inclination to interact and respond to humans. Some well-trained dogs can distinguish between 200-1000 words used by humans.

A new study published in Nature Scientific Reports provides first experimental evidence that pet cats can recognize their names if they are familiar with it. This is the first study to analyse the ability of pet cats to understand and comprehend human voices. A previous study has shown that cats can distinguish between the voices of their owner and a stranger and cats may even change their behaviour depending upon their owner’s facial expressions. Compared to dogs, cats are not naturally social and they are seen to interact with humans upon their own discretion.

In the current study conducted over a period of three years, six months to 17 years old cats of both genders and mixed breeds were chosen and divided into 4 groups to perform different experiments. All cats were spayed/neutered. Researchers tested a cat’s name with other similar sounding nouns of same length and accent. The cats had heard their names before and were familiar with it, unlike the other words. Voice recordings were played containing five words spoken in a serial order, in which the fifth word was the cats’ name. These recordings were made by researchers in their own voice and also in the voice of cat owners.

When cats heard their names, they responded by moving their ears or heads. This response is based upon both phonetic characteristics and familiarity with the name. On the other hand, cats remained still or ignorant when they heard other words. Similar results were seen for both the recordings made by cat owners and by researchers i.e. persons unfamiliar to the cats. The cats’ response was though less enthusiastic and leaned towards more ‘orientating behaviour’ and less ‘communicative behaviour’ like moving their tails or using their own voice. This could be dependent on the nature of the situation in which their names are being called and some situations may elicit dynamic response.

Researchers state that if any cat did not respond, it is likely that the cat may still be able to recognize its name but chooses not to respond to it. Lack of response could be attributed to cats’ low levels of motivation to interact with humans in general or their feelings at the time of the experiment. Further, cats cohabiting in an ordinary home with 4 or more cats were able to distinguish between their name and the other cats’ names. This was more likely to happen at a home rather than at a ‘cat café’ – a business place where people come and freely interact with the cats living there. Due to the difference in the social environment at a cat café, cats may not be able to clearly identify their names. Also, higher number of cats cohabiting at the café could have affected the results and that this experiment was conducted at only one café.

The current study shows that cats have the ability to discriminate words spoken by humans based on phonetic characteristics and their familiarity with the word. This discrimination is acquired naturally through daily normal communications between humans and cats and without any additional training. Such studies can help us understand social behaviour of cats around humans and tell us about cat’s abilities in terms of human-cat communication. This analysis can enhance the relationship between humans and their pet cats thus benefitting both.

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{You may read the original research paper by clicking the DOI link given below in the list of cited source(s)}


Source(s)

Saito A 2019. Domestic cats (Felis catus) discriminate their names from other words. Scientific Reports. 9 (1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-40616-4



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Vol.2 Issue 4 April 2019

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