If you’re a new cat parent or an experienced one with a new kitten, you might wonder if your cat knows their name. Thanks to the ever-growing field of feline science, we have an answer. Yes, cats do know their name and they may respond with a meow, a head butt, or by running towards you.
Why they respond the way they do (and yes, sometimes they ignore you) is strongly rooted in their personality, biology, and upbringing.
By pairing recent studies and research with the expert insights from feline behaviorists, we’ve got a lot to say about name recognition in cats. We also spoke to experts to get their advice on cat naming, training, and the role names play in the feline-human bond.
Do Cats React to Their Name?
“A name is a sound, or a combination of sounds our cat associates with themselves,” says Stephen Quandt, founder of Stephen Quandt Feline Behavior Associates LLC and CFTBS. Quandt says that multiple studies on name recognition found that cats know their names and can distinguish them from similar sounds.
Molly DeVoss, Certified Feline Training and Behavior Specialist and founder of Cat Behavior Solutions says cats are smart enough to respond to nicknames, too. “As long as calling their name is associated with something great, they will respond to it,” she adds.
Do Cats Recognize Their Owner’s Voice?
“A small but significant study in Science News has shown that cats respond better to their pet parent’s voice than to the voice of strangers,” Quandt says.
Additionally, research out of Japan supports this notion, finding that cats respond more strongly to their human’s voice than to a stranger’s. Researchers found cats responded positively to their human caregiver’s voice but had neutral or even negative responses to the sound of a stranger saying their name.
So, does this mean bad news for anyone who isn’t in your cat’s inner circle? Not exactly.
“If you want your cat to respond to other people, have them call the cat by name and extend a super special treat,” DeVoss says, “After your cat has accepted the treat from the new person, have them walk across the room and do it again.”
Devoss explains these multiple repetitions will quickly cement the behavior, and the kitty quickly learns the other person means a tasty cat treat is coming.
Does Tone of Voice Matter When You Call Their Name?
Kristyn Vitale, Ph.D., Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, and Assistant Professor of Animal Health and Behavior at Unity Environmental University says cats can learn that different vocalizations have different meanings, especially if they’re coming from their caregivers.
“When the tone of your voice is paired with an action, cats quickly learn the consequences,” DeVoss adds, “For example, if you call their name in a sing-song, high-pitched voice, then feed them, they associate that tone of voice with getting something great.”
A recent study backs this up and found that cats react to cat-directed speech (CDS), specifically when it comes from their cat parent. This suggests cats can better understand what their humans are trying to communicate.
How to Teach Your Cat Their Name
“Cats are quick studies at cause and effect,” DeVoss says, “As long as calling their name is repeatedly associated with something great, they will respond to it.”
One of the techniques you can use to teach your cat to recognize and respond to their name is operate conditioning capturing.
“To anchor their name, use it every time they approach you, and quickly give them a great treat. You are ‘capturing’ a natural behavior (walking up to you), and adding a verbal cue to the behavior (their name), and reinforcing the behavior by rewarding with a super special treat,” DeVoss says.
To ensure they form a positive association with their name, avoid using a disciplined voice or the word “no” when calling them.
For beginners, Quandt gives us six straightforward steps:
- Consider using a short one-to-two-syllable name (like Jenny), if you haven’t chosen one yet
- Sit close to them and say their name
- “Mark” the behavior with a quick “good girl” or “good boy” and offer a delicious treat (preferably within one or two seconds), so they associate the treat with their reaction to their name
- Do short training sessions once or twice a day when they’re not distracted
- Begin phasing out the food reward and substitute other enjoyable activities like play or petting
- Move increasingly farther away from your cat when calling their name
Suppose your cat never approaches after being called over. In that case, Vitale suggests calling them from a very short distance, like directly in front of them, and slowly increasing the distance over several days.
SBe aware of your tone of voice and other words you use as well. Quandt advises cat parents to re-think combining your cat’s name with the word ‘no.’ “A lower tone of voice [and] the force of these sounds may startle a cat,” Quandt says.
Does age matter when it comes to name recognition?
Luckily, this isn’t always the case. “As long as a cat has the ability to learn, then they should be able to learn a new name,” Vitale says.
Additionally, unless they suffer from cognitive decline in their senior years, most cats continue learning throughout their lives. In fact, cats can recognize their names without direct training; instead, learning it through interactions with their pet parent. “Over time, cats can connect hearing their name with something pleasant happening and will start responding to their name,” says Vitale.
Then Why Is My Cat Ignoring Me?
You might be right if your cat doesn’t come when called that they’re ignoring you. “[While] cats are social creatures, they have evolved as a solitary species,” DeVoss says. “Cats learn to depend on us for food, play, affection, and mental stimulation. However, when they do not need any of that, they have no use for us.”
Since cats are masters at observation, DeVoss says cats know how to get what they want, and when they don’t want anything from us, they have no reason to acknowledge us. And if you’re not as in tune with the nuances of feline body language, it’d be easy to jump to conclusions that your cat doesn’t understand their name.
But Vitale mentions that just because they don’t come, doesn’t mean they are ignoring or not acknowledging you. “[Instead] they’re responding in more subtle ways, such as with their head or ears,” she says.
Use Your Cat’s Name Throughout the Day
Regularly using your cat’s name can deepen your bond. Vitale says to reward your cat anytime they consistently respond to their name. “Each cat is different and will prefer different rewards, so figure out what works for your cat, she says. “Many cats prefer social rewards such as being praised or pet.”