Cats can memorize their friends' names, new study suggests

Cats can remember their buddies' names.
Cats can remember their buddies' names. (Image credit: Getty)

Your cat may not come when she's called, but that doesn't mean she's not listening. (Sorry, she's just ignoring you.)

Recent studies suggest that domestic cats may share some of the same language recognition skills commonly seen in dogs. In a 2019 article in the journal Scientific Reports, a team of Japanese researchers reported they had demonstrated that cats could recognize their own names in a series of spoken words. Now, new research from some of the same scientists suggests that this familiarity may also extend to a house cat's feline friends.

In a paper published April 13 in Scientific Reports (opens in new tab), researchers quizzed 48 domestic cats on the names of the fellow felines with whom they cohabitated. Twenty-nine of the cats were residents of Japanese cat cafes — coffee shops where customers can freely interact with kitties while, presumably, fishing hairballs out of their lattes — while the other 19 came from private residences that were home to three or more cats each.

For each cat participant, the researchers played an audio recording of the cat's owner calling another cohabitating cat's name several times in a row. After the fourth call, the researchers showed the participant cat a picture on a laptop monitor; in two of the four trials that followed, the picture showed the face of the cat that the owner had called (this was called the "congruous condition"), while in the remaining trials the picture showed the face of a different cohabitating cat than the one the owner had called (the "incongruous condition").

The researchers found that the house cats, but not the café cats, often stared at the monitor longer when the incongruous picture was on the screen — suggesting that the cats had their expectations violated and were trying to grapple with the fact that their feline friends' names and faces did not line up.

"We demonstrated that cats expect a specific face upon hearing the specific name of a companion," the researchers wrote in their paper. "This study provides evidence that cats link a companion's name and corresponding face without explicit training."

Interestingly, the researchers wrote, the café cats didn't pay much attention to the monitor during the incongruous condition, and paid less attention to the trials overall than the house cats did. This suggests that café cats are likely less familiar with each of their feline friends than the house cats are, and they may hear individual cats' names called less often, the authors wrote.

House cats, on the other hand, are more likely to hear their companions' names called more often — especially during feeding time, when the calling of a cat's name determines which animal gets food and which doesn't, the researchers said. This may give house cats more opportunities and greater incentive to link a companion cat's name with its face.

Of course, any study of house cat behavior must be taken with a grain of catnip, given the challenges of holding a cat's focus. While the house cats in the study did focus on the incongruous image for a longer time, on average, compared with the congruous one, the time difference amounted to only a few dozen frames of footage (just one or two seconds) at most.

And that's when the cats decided to pay attention at all. Several trials had to be excluded from the team's analysis because the cat totally refused to look at the monitor, the team admitted. One cat had to be removed from the study after deciding that this whole science thing just wasn't for her.

That cat "completed only the first trial before escaping from the room and climbing out of reach," the team wrote.

Originally published on Live Science.

Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest, CBS.com, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.