While cats don't always respond or come when called, science has found that they do recognize and distinguish their name words from others. However, whether cats "own" their names as names is a little less certain.
Cats Recognize Their Names vs. Other Words
A study published in 2013 in the scientific journal Animal Cognition found that cats can definitely pick up on the sound of their names. Researchers played audio clips of 20 different cats, and the clips featured their owners and some strangers saying their names. Researchers found that the cats turned their heads and ears toward the sound of their name, even when said by the non-owner.
Even Similar Sounds Could Be Differentiated vs. Names
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 could tell their name from those of their fellow cats.
But What's in a 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, an Associated Applied Animal Behaviorist.
She continued to explain, "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."
You should never squirt your cat or yell — punishment can severely damage the bond you share with one another.
How to Teach Your Cat Their Name
If you're consistent, you can teach a kitten or adult kitty their name within the course of a few days. Sometimes, this can be as short as a day if you have an exceptionally motivated kitten and lots of training sessions. The process is simple:
Some cats are super stubborn and may not want to respond to their name, so feel as if your cat isn't bonded to you if they don't respond to their name every time.
Start With Positive Reinforcement
"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.
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."
Use Something They Enjoy
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.
Keep Sessions Brief
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.
You must be as consistent as possible and use their name paired with anything the cat enjoys so it becomes clear quickly to the kitten that their name is important.
How To Say Their Name
It's helpful to say their name in a high-pitched, "happy," "sing-song" tone of voice. Research has found that cats are more responsive to "kitten-directed speech," which can be best described as "baby talk."
Consider Clicker Training
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 by their name. If they turn and look at you, click and toss a treat, and repeat. Do several short sessions throughout the day.
Remember, Cats Aren't Dogs
Unless specifically taught to come when called, cats 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.
Attention could be as simple as a head turn towards you, eye contact, or even a vocalization.
Can You Change 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 was turned into a shelter would be in a different situation, although not necessarily depending on the quality of their previous home life.
Should You Change a Cat's Name?
If you like their current adoptive name, you can absolutely keep it but don't feel bad about changing yor cat's to something you prefer. Moreover, Jones advises, "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 aren't going to have any emotional misgivings about having it changed. All they know is that there's this amazing new sound in their life, which 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 their ears prick up at the sound!