Do Cats Know Their Names?

Published May 29, 2019
Kitten playing with blocks

Compared to dogs, cats may seem to act as if they don't know their own names. Research has demonstrated they do indeed know their name, though this doesn't mean they'll come when called!

Can Cats Recognize Their Names?

A study in 2013 published in the scientific journal Animal Cognition found that cats can definitely pick up on the sound of their names. Researchers played audio clips to 20 different cats, and the clips featured their owner and some strangers saying their name. They found that the cats turned their heads and ears toward the sound of their name, even when said by the non-owner. A similar study was done in 2019 in Japan with 78 cats which found almost identical results. These cats not only recognized their names but were able to distinguish them from several other similar-sounding words.

closeup of a young tabby cat

Recognizing Their Names From Other Cats

In addition to the cats in the study turning to the sound of their name, the researchers in 2013 found that the cats would begin to ignore sounds that were similar to their name or were the names of other cats in the household. However, if the audio of their name was played again, the cats would respond immediately, indicating they can tell their name from those of fellow cats.

Group of black and white kittens

Do Cats Understand Their Name?

One thing to realize about cats is that while they clearly recognize the sound of their name, this doesn't mean they actually understand that it "is" their name. They do not even understand the concept of "a name." Says Katenna Jones, Associated Applied Animal Behaviorist, "they don't recognize the word as their name, they recognize the word as an auditory event that is usually followed by A) great things like fun or snacks or B) not great things like water squirts or yelling."

Teaching a Kitten Its Name

If you're consistent, you can teach a kitten their name within the course of a few days or even a day if you have an exceptionally motivated kitten and lots of training sessions. The process is simple:

  1. "Anytime you interact with your kitten in a way they enjoy, say their name just before you give them access to the fun thing. Examples of fun things include petting, playing, giving treats, putting down a bowl of their food and so on," advised Jones.

  2. For example, Jones describes the process with a toy as one where you, "grab their favorite toy, say their name, and play. Pause for a few seconds, say their name again, and play."

  3. Every kitten is different, so you want to make sure you are using things that they enjoy as your reinforcer. Food is a very easy one to use but sit down and make a list of everything you've observed that your kitten loves and use all of them to make their name a "powerful" word to your kitten.

  4. Keep your training sessions short as a kitten has a short attention span and will tire easily. Doing many sessions of about one to five minutes per day is more effective than doing a few longer sessions.

  5. You must also be as consistent as possible and use their name paired with anything the cat enjoys so it becomes clear quickly to the kitten that the name is important.

  6. It's also helpful to say their name in a high-pitched, "happy", "sing-song" tone of voice. Research has found that cats were more responsive to "kitten directed speech" which can be best described as "baby talk."

  7. Finally, you can also use a clicker to train a kitten to learn their name in combination with the steps above. Take your clicker and call your kitten with the name. If he or she turns and looks at you, click and toss a treat, and repeat. Do several short sessions throughout the day.

  8. Cats, unless specifically taught to come when called, aren't as likely as dogs are to come over to you when you call their name, so remember in this training exercise to reward just for attention to the sound of their name. This would be a head turn towards you, eye contact or even a vocalization.

Changing a Cat's Name

A question that shelter and rescue staff are often asked about is whether they can change a cat or kitten's name. Unless a cat has been in a shelter for some time, they may not even recognize their "given" name since they would have minimal contact with people using it in a home situation. A cat that lived in a home and is turned into a shelter would be a different situation although not necessarily depending on the quality of their previous home life.

Playful striped kitten

Should You Change a Cat's Name?

If you like their current shelter name, you can absolutely keep it but don't feel bad about changing it to something you prefer. Moreover, advises Jones, "If their name is associated with stuff that isn't great like yelling or squirt bottles, consider changing their name for a fresh start, rather than 'undoing' the negative association that already exists." Because a cat does not understand the concept of what a name is, they are not going to have any emotional misgivings about having it changed. All they know is there's this amazing new sound in their life that means the best things in the world are here!

How to Change a Cat's Name

If you follow the steps above for teaching a kitten their name and are diligent about your training regimen, you should be able to teach a kitten or adult cat their new name within a few days. With a cat that is shyer and less active, it may take longer because you'll have to work on building up many more positive associations with the name. Just remember to go at your individual cat's pace and pair that new name with everything that's awesome in the cat's world and you'll soon see his or her ear's prick up at the sound!

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Do Cats Know Their Names?