Do Cats Know Their Names?

The love affair between cats and their owners goes back thousands of years – in fact, research has shown that felines began cohabitating with humans approximately 9,500 years ago. In ancient Egypt, there is an inscription on the Royal Tombs at Thebes that reads, “Thou art the Great Cat, the avenger of the gods, and the judge of worlds, and the president of the sovereign chiefs and the governor of the holy Circle; thou art indeed the Great Cat.” Immortalized within their statues and art, cats became a prominent symbol of beauty, power, and fertility in Egyptian culture.

These beloved creatures were not only protected by the law, but archaeologists have found mummified cats in the ancient ruins. In addition to becoming domesticated members of the family, Egyptians benefited from cats in their midst. Cats were not only valued companions, but protected households from disease-spreading rodents, deadly scorpions, venomous snakes, and other harbingers of danger in ancient life.

In ancient Egyptian art, these goddesses were often depicted as women with the heads of lionesses, cheetahs, leopards, panthers, and other feline creatures. These deities were worshipped and held specific cultural functions. For example, Mafdet was the goddess that protected against scorpions, snakes, and other dangerous animals, and was considered the goddess of justice and judgement. Bastet was another ancient Egyptian goddess that was revered as a protector of the homestead. Although it is not known if Egyptians named their domesticated cats as we do in modern culture, there is no mistaking they were considered a sacred animal, and remain so to this day.

While cats may no longer be worshipped as religious deities, cats still remain near and dear to their human companions’ hearts – they’re doted over, gifted with treats and toys, and even have their birthdays celebrated in some families. The difference between dog and cat behavior is, given their beloved place in the heart of the household, often scrutinized for reciprocation. Dogs, with some individual exceptions, tend to be very outgoing and eager to please their owners, a stark contrast to cats’ legendary aloofness and airy behavior. 

The big question for cat owners comes down to intention: do cats realize they’re being so standoffish, or is it all unintentional? Getting to the bottom of the mystery means determining how aware finicky felines are of their own attitudes, and it starts with their name. Do cats know their names? The answer is – it depends.

Cats, Dogs, & Selective Breeding

Rewinding history back to canine and feline ancestors, one thing becomes clear: their first interactions with humans looked very different. All dogs descended from wolf ancestors, and their first “jobs” among humanity were distinct and trained: security for the home and livestock herd, a companion for hunting, and so on. Canines that showed promise and the right behavioral traits were – and still are – bred to one another to increase the likelihood of those behavioral traits in future generations. 

Where wolves were consciously domesticated throughout most of recorded history, cats were a little different. True to their nature, they essentially found their way into human living situations – and never really left. Their jobs were not distinct and trained; rather, they lived how they always had and humans happened to find a good use for those instincts – catching mice in granaries, keeping rats out of homes, and so on. This means that rather than the close, roommate-like relationship humanity had grown to enjoy with now-domesticated dogs, cats were more akin to groundskeepers, or helpful neighbors. 

Additionally, while the size and shape of modern dogs varies wildly and spans a staggering number of breeds, cat breeds are comparatively fewer. And while feline body sizes vary a little bit, they aren’t nearly as obvious as the difference between a Chihuahua and a Newfoundland.

Do Cats Learn Their Names: Understanding Feline Psychology

With such close genetic ties to their wild small-bodied feline ancestors, the call of the wild is strong – even in the fattest, most complacent, house-living tabby. Recent scientific experiments have revealed that even though cats can (and do) register their own names when mentioned in a short list of similar-sounding words, they can – and do – choose to ignore it fairly often. The end results of the study note that cats may respond to their name not necessarily out of familiarity, but because their name is typically spoken or uttered just before mealtime, a treat, or a positive experience. 

In other words, research indicates that cats recognize their name as a familiar sound, and not necessarily a name that was assigned to them. Consequently, that familiar ‘sound’, when called, results in something they enjoy – like human affection or food – or something they don’t like, such as a visit to the vet’s office. This is what scientists refer to as associative learning.

Calling a cat’s name repeatedly without a “payoff” for a response is more likely to earn that famous aloof nature than any feline warmth. Even petting or head-scratching can be considered an affirming reward, so it’s important to be consistent when training a cat to understand and respond to his name. It bears mentioning though, that the phrase “herding cats” is infamously applied to situations that are hopelessly uncontrolled – and that even the most diligent “training” attempts may very well fail. As quoted in Nature News & Comment, John Bradshaw, a biologist at the University of Bristol explains, “Cats are just as good as dogs at learning. They’re just not as keen to show their owners what they’ve learned.”

Why Won’t My Cat Come When I Call Him?

While studies have established that felines are capable of recognizing certain sounds – such as their name being called – it still doesn’t guarantee they will respond. Whereas a canine companion is, generally speaking, more responsive when called by name, a cat’s reaction may differ widely. It usually requires some type of motivation, but may also be affected by his temperament, mood, and well – just the fact that he’s a cat and not a dog.

It may be frustrating for some pet parents to beckon their kitty, only to be met with an aloof stare or a cold shoulder. And unless he’s being lured with some catnip, a tasty treat or a favorite toy, he may even seem like he’s purposely ignoring you. However, studies have indicated that cats are not only very intelligent creatures, but quite independent and self-sufficient – and hearing their name alone may not be enough to motivate them to do what their humans want at any given moment. In other words, his actions are instinctually dictated by a ‘what’s in it for me?’ mentality, not unlike his feline ancestry in the wild.

Unfortunately, humans tend to compare cats and dogs all too readily, when their behaviors are in fact very different from one another. Explains Pam Johnson-Bennett, CCBC, author and owner of Cat Behavior Associates, LLC, “All too often we expect cats to respond immediately the way dogs do. Owners who compare the two are really doing a disservice to both species. Love and appreciate the cats for who they are, and stop measuring them against dogs.”

 How Do I Teach My Cat His Name?

Although it is possible to teach a cat his name, it’s important to understand that he will respond in his own time and in his own way – that is simply their nature, and for many, part of the feline mystique. However, many first-time pet parents would at the very least like to establish name recognition with their fur babies. In order to get a cat to respond to his name on a more regular basis, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Use his name regularly in routines: During the day, try to use a cat’s name as part of his daily routine. For example, incorporating his name into some of his favorite activities – such as playtime or meals – he will be more apt to come when called. Experts recommend saying the cat’s name right before placing his food dish out, or when presenting him with his favorite toy. Another good name-reinforcement activity: when he comes to you to receive a head scratch or a pet. Adds Johnson-Bennet, “If a cat associates something positive (with his name) – especially when spoken by a familiar human – there’s more of a chance of a response.”
  • Positive reinforcement is key: It’s also important to use a cat’s name in a positive manner, and avoid punishment at all costs. In addition to creating an unhealthy relationship, cats will avoid responding to their name, since they will associate it with negative actions and behaviors.
  • Clicker training for cats: Once humans have a better understanding of their fuzzy companion, it’s easier to hone in on certain behavioral traits and find out what works best. For example, if he comes out of hiding for a treat, chances are it will make a good motivator during training. In some instances, research has shown that clicker training is an effective method of teaching cats commands (such as “come” or “stay”), and may also be used to teach them their name.