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Cats can learn the names of their companions

A new study led by Kyoto University has discovered that cats are able to recognize the names of their feline companions, and sometimes also those of their owners. These findings provide evidence for the first time that domestic cats can link a human or feline companion’s name and corresponding face without explicit training.

In a first experiment, the scientists recruited 48 cats (19 living in households and 29 in cafés) and showed them digital photos of a cat they lived it. At the same time, a stranger would call either the true name of the cat in the picture or a completely unrelated one. “Household cats paid attention to the monitor for longer when the wrong name was called, indicating an ‘expectancy violation effect’,” the study authors reported, suggesting that they were confused by the incorrect, unexpected name. This effect was not observed in the café cats.

Afterwards, the researchers performed a similar experiment on other 26 household cats. This time, however, the cats were shown pictures of their owners. Although the strength of the connection between facial cues and names appeared stronger when looking at pictures of fellow felines, the “expectancy violation effect” was often present during mismatches between the pictures and names of their owners too.

Various factors influence the likelihood that cats will remember their owners’ and feline companions’ names, such as the size of the family they live in, and the duration of time they lived there. According to the scientists, the larger the family and the longer the cats lived there, the more likely they are to remember a name.

“Our interpretation is that cats living with more people have more opportunities to hear names being used than cats living with fewer people, and that living with a family for a longer time increases this experience,” explained the authors.

“In summary, house cats matched at least their companion cats’ names and faces, and possibly their human family members’ names. This is the first evidence that domestic cats link human utterances and their social referents through everyday experiences.”

Further studies are needed to clarify how cats learn the associations between names and faces and what motivates them to do so.

“One possible explanation has to do with competition,” the authors hypothesized. “For example, a cat might receive food when the owner calls her name but not when she calls another cat’s name. The fact that humans are probably not in competition with cats might explain the weaker association between human names and faces.”

The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer  

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