Results published in the journal Scientific Reports suggest cats can, in fact, distinguish their name from other sounds, even if they don’t actually grasp the concept of identity.
The science behind name recognition
The Japanese researchers involved in the study examined animals in four different experiments-some experiments conducted in the cat’s home and others conducted at cat cafes.
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In these experiments, the researchers used the cats’ owners’ voices in some situations and a stranger’s voice in others. All human participants began by speaking four different words to accommodate the cats to sounds being spoken and then the participants would speak the cat’s name.
In one version of the experiment, the researchers played a recording of the cat’s owner saying the four different words, with a 15-second pause between each word. In another version of the experiment, the recording would mix in names of other cat’s that lived in their house with four different nouns. These variations were tested with strangers’ voices as well.
The results were made clear in all four experiments conducted within the house of the cats. The majority of the cats featured in the study moved their head or perked their ears when their names were spoken, irrespective of the previously mentioned variables.
“We conclude that cats can discriminate the content of human utterances based on phonemic differences. This is the first experimental evidence showing cats’ ability to understand human verbal utterances,” the researchers wrote.
Because the four words chosen in each experiment were all nouns with the same length and accents as the cat’s own name, the researchers could determine a definitive link between the cats perking up and name recognition.
Cats got your tongue
There were some considerable exceptions when these experiments were conducted at cat cafes, however. Cats residing in cat cafes could reliably make distinctions between nouns and their name, but not between their names and the names of other cats.
This seems to suggest that cats identify the sound of a name as the precursor to either a treat or some kind of reprimand or task. This is what the researchers refer to as “salient stimulus,” meaning cats form phonetic links between their names and “rewards, such as food, petting, and play.”
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