It's no secret that cats are known for being very independent animals and therefore don't have the best social reputation, especially when compared to dogs and other household pets. Like most cat owners, you've probably called your pet's name and received no sign that they've heard or understood you. That begs the question: Is your cat ignoring you? According to a new report, the answer is yes. Researchers found that our furry feline friends have a much better understanding of language than we may think.
A team of researchers from Tokyo's Sophia University published evidence this week that suggests cats can actually distinguish their name from other common nouns. The report, published in the journal Scientific Reports, found that while most domestic cats—also known as Felis catus—can acknowledge the fact that they're being called, there's a good chance they won't come running when you want them to.
According to the Wall Street Journal, previous research shows that dogs are much more responsive to their owners' needs—some trained breeds can distinguish between 1,000 different words and the pitch of human voices'. This new piece of research, however, is one of the first to attempt to understand cats' cognitive and social abilities. "I think cats have almost the same abilities, but research about cats is so rare,” Dr. Atsuko Saito, one of the lead researchers on the report, told the Wall Street Journal.
Her team conducted four different experiments with up to 34 cats at a time, both in home settings and in popular cat cafés in Japan, Saito said. They played each cat a recording of its owner's voice, or another person's voice, that included soundbites of four nouns or other cat's names, followed by the cat's own name at the very end. The nouns used were reportedly similar to the cat's name—and during the test, researchers tracked vocalization and movement of the cats' head, ears, and tails.
The research found that, on average, cats didn't react strongly to the other nouns. When they heard their own name, however, researchers noted they had a different reaction. Apparently, many cats twitched their ears and heads when their name was called, which the researchers took as a sign of recognition. But the cats rarely moved their position despite being called. "The response is very subtle," Saito said. She shared that cats who live in homes with fellow felines can also distinguish their name from the names of their furry pals, too.
Why would cats ignore us if we call their name? Well, Saito said that cats often associate the sound of their name with a certain action—like being served a meal, petting or playing, or other things they may not actually enjoy, like having medicine administered. Just because your cat doesn't come bounding into your arms when you call isn't a sign that they're not interested in you. Simply looking your way could be an indicator that the cat is interested and cognizant of your actions.
"There's this idea that if the cat isn't approaching you that they're maybe ignoring you," Kristyn Vitale, a postdoctoral researcher at Oregon State University, told the Wall Street Journal. "Who set that as being the thing that means they're paying attention?"