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How Do Cats Know Their Name?

Updated: August 9, 2022 by Kristen Chapple

Every time you’re mentioning the name of your little furry friend, he turns his head in expectation of what’s going to happen next or comes over from the backyard or the other side of the apartment to find you and find out what you’re preparing for him. But how can they understand that? How do cats know their name?

It’s a fact so common that we almost never stop to wonder how our animal friends learn how we’re calling them and to come to us whenever we call their names.

How Cats Know Their Name

The classical belief going around is that cats – most animals actually – learn to react to their names through classical conditioning. That is the name + the situation.

So if you call your little friend by name as you give them their food, they will learn to react to that combination. Or, on the other side, calling his name in a bad situation and mustering him, they’ll run away from that combination next time.

We all assume that our little feline friends are intelligent and that they are quick to learn new tricks, but let’s see what actual science has to say on that matter.

The most recent studies and research show that cats do indeed learn and recognize their name. So they know and remember their names, not just the classical conditioning we mentioned above. And, it turns out, if yours doesn’t respond to his name, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t know his name but only that he’s not motivated to do so.

Social Cognition

Social cognition is a set of skills researchers believed that only we humans have. That proved to be wrong in the last few years, when they’ve reached the conclusion that even some animals, like your cute little kitten, have.

What it means is that your cat has the ability to observe one’s state or behavior and then imitate or adjust – up to a point – their own state or behavior to those witnessed.

So your little tail-chasing friend does have some sophisticated conceptual understanding.

Orienting Behavior

This type of behavior tells us that when cats hear their names, they recognize it and might exhibit some form of confirmation behavior such as turning their head or twitching their ears.

Sometimes, that behavior might be a little bit more like turning their whole body towards their owner or showing more interest in the one calling.

While cats know their name and can recognize it, that doesn’t mean that they will care that you called them. But don’t take it personally. It’s not about you, it’s about them, as cats are not dogs.

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