Cats have a reputation for being aloof, and that reputation is only going to get stronger after scientific results from Japan revealed the true extent to which they have been ignoring us all this time.
While dog owners have to do very little to get the eager-to-please attention of their good boys and girls, cats are something else entirely. Dogs can be trained to understand lots of words we say to them; cats sometimes seem barely aware of our existence.
But what are the limits of our ability to vocally communicate with domestic cats (Felis catus)? There’s a lot of research looking into the way dogs comprehend human vocalisations, but until now, the ability of cats to interpret human speech has been relatively little explored by scientists.
To find out if cats can discriminate between their names and other kinds of words people say to them, researchers from the University of Tokyo conducted a series of experiments with 78 felines.
The cat cohort came from both ordinary households and a cat cafe, and the researchers sought to test the hypothesis that cats might recognise their name as different from other words, on the basis it could be a stimulus term associated with various rewards, such as food, petting, and play.
“To test the hypothesis, we presented four different words serially as habituation stimuli, then presented the cats’ own names as test stimuli,” the authors, led by evolutionary psychologist Atsuko Saito, explain in their paper.
“If the cats were habituated to the other four words and dishabituated to their own names, a rebound response to the presentation of their own names would be observed, indicating the ability to discriminate their own names from other words.”
Across the experiments, the researchers tested the cats by playing them recordings of their names being spoken, but only after recordings of nouns or other cat names were presented to the cats.
The interactions were recorded on video, then analysed to detect subtle differences in the cat’s response – ear moving, head moving, vocalising, tail moving, and displacement.
The researchers also tested whether it matters if the cat is familiar with the person speaking, with both the researchers (as unfamiliar people) and the cat owners recording footage of themselves to play to the cats.
Ultimately, based on the cats’ responses, the results suggested that most of the time cats can indeed distinguish between their names being said and other words, even if they are similar-sounding words, and regardless of whether it’s their owner or another unfamiliar person who is doing the talking.
The most clear exception to this was when the cats who lived at the cat cafe were talked to; their name recognition appeared to be poorer, perhaps as a result of living in an environment where they often hear lots of different human visitors saying lots of different cat names, making it harder to isolate their own amidst all the other felines.
Aside from that, the researchers say their first-of-its-kind experimental results clearly demonstrate that “cats can discriminate human utterances based on phonemic differences”.
Because of this, they suggest we might one day be able to co-opt this ability to improve cat quality of life, helping them to identify perhaps dangerous objects or places, by using specific utterances.
That’s a good thing, even if the findings may also seem to encompass a somewhat negative dimension.
Essentially, we now know better than ever that our cats understand quite well when we are addressing them: they simply choose not to acknowledge us.
According to Saito, at least it’s nothing personal.
“Cats are not evolved to respond to human cues,” Saito told New Scientist.
“They will communicate with humans when they want. That is the cat.”
The findings are reported in Scientific Reports.