Researchers have determined that cats actually know their names, but they just don’t care:
More than 3,000 years ago in Egypt, a tabby called Nedjem is thought to have roamed the royal household of Thutmose III. History doesn’t record whether Nedjem — whose name means ‘sweet’ or ‘pleasant’ — learnt to respond when called. But a study published on 4 April in Scientific Reports1 suggests that at least some modern housecats can distinguish their names from similar-sounding words, although they register recognition with the merest twitch of the head or ear.
“Cats are just as good as dogs at learning — they’re just not as keen to show their owners what they’ve learnt,” says John Bradshaw, a biologist at the University of Bristol, UK, who specializes in human–animal interactions.
The study took advantage of a technique known as ‘habituation–dishabituation’, commonly used in animal-behaviour studies. Atsuko Saito, a cognitive biologist at the University of Tokyo, and her colleagues visited 11 households with pet cats (Felis catus) and asked the owner to read a list of four nouns to their pet. These words were of the same length and rhythm as the cat’s name.
Most cats showed subtle signs that they were paying attention at first, by moving their head or ears. But by the fourth word, many had essentially stopped listening and their physical response was less pronounced. When their owners uttered a fifth word — the cat’s name — Saito’s team watched closely to see whether the pet displayed a stronger physical response than it had to the previous word.
The team found that 9 of the 11 cats showed a statistically significant (albeit subtle) heightening of their response when they heard their names. That alone does not prove that the felines recognized their monikers: a cat might have shown a stronger response to its name because that word was more familiar than others used in the test.
I am so not surprised.