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Why Cats Can Remember Other Cats’ Names

Denyse O'Leary
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Photo credit: Maria Teneva via Unsplash.

In a study of 48 cats living in private homes and pet cafés, scientists at Kyoto University in Japan determined that they can recognize the names humans give to them if they live in the same household:

The scientists showed pet cats living in homes and felines living in “cat cafés” photos of cats they resided with to determine their reactions. The cats were then played an audio recording of their owners, or a researcher, calling out a name — either the name of the familiar cat in the photo or a fake name.

Researchers discovered that pet cats spent more time looking at the image when the audio incorrectly identified a familiar cat than when the correct name was said. The study’s authors concluded this behavior may have occurred due to the cat expecting the correct name and being confused when it is not stated. 

STEPHANIE WENGER, “CATS RECOGNIZE THE NAMES OF FELINE FRIENDS WHO LIVE IN THE SAME HOUSEHOLD, STUDY FINDS” AT YAHOO(MAY 17, 2022)

Generally, cats that lived together in a household did better than cats living in cat cafés:

“These results indicate that only household cats anticipated a specific cat face upon hearing the cat’s name, suggesting that they matched the stimulus cat’s name and the specific individual,” the authors explain, differentiating household cats from “café cats,” or cats that live in cafés where strange people can freely interact with them. “Cats probably learn such name-face relationships by observing third-party interactions; a role for direct receipt of rewards or punishments seems highly unlikely. The ability to learn others’ names would involve a form of social learning.”

MATTHEW ROZSA, “CATS KNOW THE NAMES OF OTHER CATS THAT ARE THEIR FRIENDS, STUDY SAYS” AT MSN (MAY 16, 2022)

An amused reaction:

All of this is either charming or jarring information for cat owners, depending on the names you call your semi-domesticated demons when no one else is around. For example, on paper, our cats’ names are Calliope and Garp, but based on this study, they most likely know each other as “Just a Muffin!” and “Mister Sh**.”

SAMANTHA COLE, “CATS ACTUALLY KNOW EACH OTHER’S NAMES, STUDY SUGGESTS” AT VICE (MAY 16, 2022)

The paper is open access.

A Mystery? Perhaps Not

The researchers are unsure exactly how cats remember other cats’ names. But that may not be a mystery if we keep in mind what is involved. First, cats recognize their own names:

Briefly, when cognitive behaviorist Atsuko Saito and her colleagues studied cats who lived in households and at cat cafés, they found that most could distinguish their names from similar sounds spoken by humans. It’s not clear why we should be surprised; the cat probably knows from experience that something that concerns him will happen whenever he hears that sound.

MIND MATTERS NEWS

Signals and Abstractions

But cats recognize their names as signals, not as abstractions. They likely recognize other cats’ names as signals in the same way.

We humans recognize our names both as signals and as abstractions. You may see your name on a bill. That’s a signal: Pay this. But you may also see your name on an old photo. You know it’s about you but it’s not a signal that you should do anything. It’s an abstraction around your identity.

Cats are more intelligent than they have been given credit for in the past but they don’t do abstractions. To the extent that a cat recognizes his own name or another cat’s name, he interprets it as a signal that attention is being paid and that something may happen as a result.

Read the rest at Mind Matters News, published by Discovery Institute’s Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

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abstractionsanimalsaudio recordingCalliopecat caféscatsGarphumansintelligenceJapanKyoto Universitynamesownerspetssignalssocial learning