Cats know their names. They prefer to ignore you.

Most cat owners know the hopeless feeling of trying to call the name of their beloved pet, only to be ignored or, even worse, abandoned with a dismissive flick of the tail.

Cat ignores its owner
Tiddles recognises what you are saying, but chooses to ignore it

By Ruby Prosser Scully

An analysis of feline behaviour has found that cats really do know their names, it seems they just don’t care when you use them.

Atsuko Saito at Sophia University in Japan and her colleagues wanted to see if pet cats could distinguish between their own name and other similar-sounding words, even when a stranger called the name.

The team visited cat cafes, where the pets mingle with diners, and households and analysed the way the animals’ ears, heads, tails and feet moved in response to the sound of various words. With the owner out of sight, they played recordings of the owner saying four words with the same length and accent as their cat’s name, 15 seconds apart. This was followed by a recording of the cat’s name.

Read more: The cat made me do it: Is your pet messing with your mind?

Many of the cats were likely to become accustomed to the sounds being made, so if they did really recognise their name, Saito and her colleagues believed they would see a different reaction when it was spoken.

In the experiment, 11 out of 16 cats showed a drop off in activity between the first and the fourth word being spoken, suggesting they were getting used to the recordings. Of those 11, nine reacted again when their name was played.

Cats who didn’t grow accustomed to the words were excluded from the analysis.

Read more: Cats are actually useless at catching rats – they prefer smaller prey

When Saito performed the same test with a stranger’s voice, this time 20 cats became habituated to the words and 13 of these responded again to their own names.

As for why cats don’t always come when called, Saito says they are just ignoring you.

“Cats are not evolved to respond to human cues,” says Saito. “They will communicate with humans when they want. That is the cat.”

Journal reference: Scientific Reports, DOI: 10.1038/s41598-019-40616-4,

First published at New Scientist – Thursday 4 April 2019

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