Although they do not care most of the time, cats differentiate their name from other words, even phonetically close. But it is difficult to say if it is a reflex or if they really understand that we are talking about them
This is a question that divides cat owners and ethologists: can these gentle cats recognize their names when they are called or not? A study published on April 4 in the journal Scientific Reports tends to answer in the affirmative.
Cats have lived with humans for almost ten thousand years. But between the two species, communication is not always easy. Meows, purrs or postures are all messages that attest to their ability to indicate their mood, but do they understand ours? “It is difficult to establish with certainty that cats recognize the utterances of humans,” confirms by email Atsuko Saito, from the Department of Cognitive and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Tokyo.
Scientists have observed a significantly high number of reactions in cats when their names are spoken, mainly ear movements
Never mind: with her team, she tested 78 domestic cats of various breeds to test if they could make the difference between their name and other phonetically similar words. Five previously recorded words were broadcast over a loudspeaker. The first four contained the same number of syllables and the same intonations as their name, which was broadcast in the fifth and last position. The researchers then examined the vocal reactions and the movements of the animals (head, ears, tail or whole body).
Like any self-respecting cat, the tomcats showed a total lack of interest in the experience. At least the statement of the first four words. Because when their names were pronounced, scientists observed a significant number of reactions in cats, mainly ear movements.
The fact that they only react at that moment – whether the voice is that of the master or a stranger – suggests that it is not a simple reflex in response to any sound . But in the rest of the experiment, carried out with animals living in community in “cat bars”, the authors observed reactions when the names of the roommates were pronounced. “We cannot really conclude from this that cats recognize their name as such, perhaps the reactions observed are simply a response to a stimulus associated with a reward”, for example when the owners lavish them with petting or kibbling after having called them, nuance Mathieu Werts, veterinarian specializing in Cat’Pattes in Monthey.
To decide, it would be necessary, for example, to examine whether this capacity for phonetic distinction also exists in the wild cat. For the moment, “we don’t have the answer to this question,” answers Atsuko Saito. But it is possible that cats acquired this ability during their domestication. ”