Kittens, cats

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KYOTO, Japan — Cats often get a bad reputation for being antisocial and fairly uninterested in everything we lowly humans have to say. However, a new study finds cats really are listening and know exactly who their owners are speaking to. Researchers in Japan say cats understand and remember the names of their feline pals — especially when they live together.

A team from Kyoto University found cats not only recognized their own names, but also showed that they can match up names with the faces of other cats they’re familiar with. The findings point to cats having the same ability to learn human words that dogs display — even if cats would rather have their owners think they’re ignoring them.

Cat confusion leads to longer stares

During the study, researcher Saho Takagi and the team examined cats living in multi-pet households. These cats either lived with other domestic cats in someone’s home or in a “cat cafe” where several friendly felines keep customers company during their visits.

Study authors presented each cat with the image of a familiar cat from the same household. They then played a recording of that cat’s name (the “congruent condition”) or a different and incorrect name (the “incongruent condition”).

Results show that cats in multi-pet homes spend more time staring at the image of their friend when the wrong name played. Researchers believe the cats were studying the image because of the confusion over the mismatched name.

On the other hand, cats in cafes didn’t spend as much time examining the mismatched faces. Study authors say this suggests that cafe cats are less familiar with all the different felines living in the busy stores.

“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 researchers write in Scientific Reports. “Upon hearing a cats’ name, the subjects expected the corresponding face.”

Home life is less hectic

Researchers believe housecats have an easier time of learning name-face relationships, which they learn by observing third-party interactions between their owners, other humans, and their feline roommates. Meanwhile, cafe cats likely pay less attention to other names and faces because they may be living with several if not dozens of other cats and see an endless stream of human faces.

In a second experiment, the team showed each cat the face of a human they live with, while playing another recording of either the right or wrong name. Again, cats spent more time examining the person’s face when they heard the wrong name play. This delay was also longer for cats living in homes with several humans.

“Our interpretation is that cats living with more people have more opportunities to hear names being used than cats living with fewer people, and that living with a family for a longer time increases this experience,” the researchers write. “In other words, the frequency and number of exposure to the stimuli may make the name-face association more likely.”

“This is the first evidence that domestic cats link human utterances and their social referents through every day experiences,” the team adds.

However, the researchers also note that their study only involved 48 cats, including 29 from cat cafes. The team says it’s still unclear how cats learn to associate names with faces. Amusingly, part of the problem revolves around cats being very uncooperative study participants.

“One cat completed only the first trial before escaping from the room and climbing out of reach,” study authors admit.

About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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  1. TimT says:

    I had a cat that absolutely knew the name of one of my other cats. These two hated each other and “Mia” would frequently sneak up behind “Prissy” and attack her. If I saw Mia coming, I’d say “There’s Mia” and Prissy would immediately start looking around to see if Mia was sneaking up on her. And BTW, over the years, they buried the hatchet and eventually became friends.

  2. SuzanneL says:

    Well, I can’t speak for cats in Japan, but my cat defintely speaks English. Ask her a question, and she’ll answer you in English intonations. “Go get your srting”, and if she can find it she’ll bring it to you to play. She definitly knows, “Time to feed the kitty!”, and if she’s clawing a chair, I say, “Come here, let me smack you!”, and she comes right over and I pet her for stopping clawing the chair and coming over to me. ????

  3. John says:

    My cat only knows Chinese, That is because as an Occidental, that is only what I speak at home. She knows many words but cannot understand Texas English. That is good. She is smarter.

  4. Barb Dwyer says:

    One of my cats not only knows the other cat’s name but has also expressed strong feelings on subjects as far afield as the designated hitter rule and the capital gains tax.

    1. Dee says:


    2. B. Hanson says:

      ???? very good! very good!

  5. Phil Bickel says:

    Cats would eat us if we were smaller. Just keep feeding them to stay safe.

  6. Vendicar Decarian says:

    If cats know the names of other cats, then they know their own names, and if they know their own names, then they are ignoring you when you talk to them.


    Always remember…. You cat spends most of it’s time planning how it can eat you.

  7. Vendicar Decarian says:

    Cats know you taste like Pork.

  8. Fiddlewink says:

    I have 3 cats and the youngest says “wow” when he likes something and “ow” when he’s not happy. One night a pair of barred owls where hooting in our backyard and they woke me up. The youngest kitty and I sat and listened for a while and he turned to me and said “wow.” Each cat has a favorite person in the house. So when I call my cat’s name, the youngest comes running and arrives first. Every time. He also copies favorite sleeping places of the older cats much to their annoyance.

  9. Jason says:

    I will bet you that they pick up on differences in sounds and soft grunts more than words precisely

  10. Minxy says:

    My cats understand the words Kitchen and Refrigerator, and perk up when they hear it. If I say, “kitchen” they know that’s where the food is, same for refrigerator and they perk up and go to whichever word I say. Having more than one cat, when you call one by name, they all don’t come, so they do understand how to associate the name you speak and the individual cat who should respond.

  11. Scott Drake says:

    Poor John, this article WAS about cats, yet here he is puking all over a nice article without ANYTHING about politics or Texas. Great job. My cats do NOT approve and pooped on you John.

  12. Oliver Clozoff says:

    I have yet to see any convincing evidence that cats remember their own names.

  13. Afi Phoebe says:

    My 9 indoor cats turn their heads and look at me for eye contact when their names are called. They know, but can also engage in selective hearing and are not unlike us that way. A cat owner for approximately 67 years and must say from my observations they are quite capable creatures.