Cats are independent, fickle and willful creatures, and humans have lived with them (as their loyal servants, obviously) for the last 10,000 years. They’re beholden to no one, and will usually submit to human attention only as long as it suits them.

Since cats can be so aloof, it’s tricky to be sure whether they don’t know their names, or do know them but choose not to acknowledge it when you call them. It’s obvious that dogs recognise their names because they respond with such enthusiasm, but do cats know what they’re called?

Cat behaviour expert Anita Kelsey says that cats don’t know their names as such, but they do respond to tone and repetition. She said cats won’t know what a word means but they act on repetition and the consequences of the word. They can also recognise a specific tone of voice. So, for example, you could say ‘din dins’ which results in food coming and after that, they’ll know that the phrase means that food is on the cards.

It’s the same with names. People call their cats using a different tone and they recognise the tone and sound meaning that attention from their human is going to follow. The repetitiveness of a name can result in a cat responding, simply because they’ve been conditioned to expect attention from their owner afterwards. It’s the tone, the sound of the word, repetitive usage and what comes after that a cat responds to, rather than the name itself.

A 2013 study from the University of Tokyo found that pet felines are perfectly capable of recognising their owner’s voice but largely choose to ignore it. The study tested 20 house cats with recordings of four strangers and their owner calling their names, and noted a greater response (ear, tail and head movement, pupil dilation, shifting paws) to the call when it was from their owner rather than an unknown volunteer. None of the recordings made the cats get up or come when called. Cats are less willing to respond to being called than dogs, who are often incredibly eager to answer to their names.
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