cats recognize the names of their human and feline housemates

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Despite its reputation as independent, even antisocial, the cat appears to be the most popular pet in the world. Initially bred to hunt rats and mice, it has established itself in many homes. In 2019, proof was made that he recognizes his name, like the dog. But unlike the latter, it is more difficult to train it and, ultimately, to know if he apprehends and memorizes other words having referential meanings, like a first name referring to an individual. Recently, a team of Japanese researchers claims to have demonstrated that cats, in addition to recognizing their name, learn and remember the name of their congeners living with them, but also that of their master(s). This finding lays the groundwork for deeper insights into linguistic cognition in cats.

We communicate in all aspects of life, referring to often impalpable concepts and principles. Words include a part of referential meaning, apart from space and time. We can talk about things that are not there physically, not yet realized or already passed. Our actions are shaped, in part, by this language. This is also found in some animals. Chickadees, for example, act differently depending on the type of song. The modulations of the “melody”, like our words and intonations, can warn a fellow creature of an immediate danger. In other words, a specific cry is associated with a particular reference.

Since the early 2000s, there has been a strong increase in the number of cats in France, while the number of dogs is tending to fall. While the latter demonstrate significant intellectual and learning abilities, especially in terms of retained words associated with mental images, cats are not as docile in the face of learning. Nevertheless, in recent years, scientists have shown that cats bond deeply with humans. These complex creatures can communicate with us.

This is why a Japanese research team, led by Saho Takagi, a researcher in Animal Sciences at Kyoto University, evaluated whether cats linked a human utterance and the corresponding object. Their surprising discovery, showing that cats are much more attentive to what we say than we previously thought, is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Attentive ears and an active memory

To objectively estimate whether cats have similar abilities to dogs to associate words with their mental images, the scientists conducted two separate experiments, the general principle of which is based on the surprise induced by an unexpected event. More specifically, whether for humans or animals, we tend to remain frozen in the face of the unexpected. Concretely, in this study, the surprise/the unexpected is represented by the utterance of a word that does not correspond to the image presented next. This fixation behavior demonstrates understanding of the spoken word.

The researchers therefore observed the behavior of 48 cats, to identify or not this response. 29 lived in five “cat cafes,” where visitors can freely interact with the cats. The other 19 were house cats, living with at least two other cats.

At first, they presented (on a screen) to the cats the photo of a congener (called model cat) living with them, associated with the auditory stimuli consisting of a recording of the voice of the owner calling the cat in question by his name. For each subject, two congruent trials (the name matched the photo) and two incongruent trials (the photo did not match the spoken name) were conducted.

Diagram of the experimental principle. Two model cats were chosen from cats living with the subject. The name of the model cat called by the owner was broadcast through a speaker built into a laptop computer. Immediately after the playback, a cat’s face appeared on the monitor. In half of the trials, name and face matched (congruent condition). In the other half, they did not match (incongruent condition). © S. Takagi, et al. 2022

Surprisingly, the domestic cats spent more time staring at the computer screen during the incongruous trial, remaining frozen and intrigued by the discrepancy between the model cat’s image and name. These results indicate that only domestic cats anticipated the image of the model cat when hearing its name. Scientists explain that cafe cats don’t seem to learn the association between another cat’s name and their face. Indeed, environmental differences between house cats and cafe cats, including the frequency with which they observe other cats being called and respond to calls, may be responsible. Simply put, according to the study, the longer cats live together and are likely to hear humans call them by name, the easier they learn to link a name to a specific conspecific.

Cats concerned about their owners?

In a second step, the authors conducted a similar test, but using the image of a human as the stimulus instead of the model cat. They showed 26 cats a picture of someone they lived with (in a multi-person household) or a stranger (incongruous situation), after the person’s name was spoken. Similar to before, cats remained frozen on the computer screen a bit longer when there was a mismatch between the image and the name. Moreover, this effect was significantly stronger in households with more people, as well as in those where the cat had lived longer with the family.

Graph showing screen time. On the left, when the cats have been in the family for a short time, and on the right, when the cats have been in the family for longer. Green arrows show the most marked attachment behavior in incongruous situations (blue) for cats that have been living with family members for a long time. © S. Takagi, et al. 2022 (edited by Laurie Henry for Trust My Science)

For the authors of the study, it is clear that the cat is capable, in addition to learning its name, of remembering that of its master (just as the dog does) as well as that of its congeners. They point out: This Study Provides Evidence That Cats Associate a Companion’s Name and Matching Face Without Explicit Training “.

Cat behavior and learning are growing areas of study. In 2020, a study demonstrated the ability of cats to learn behaviors by watching what humans do. These discoveries will change our views and our judgments, often stereotyped, concerning our four-legged friends. Even if they don’t seem interested in what we can do or tell them, it seems that we are wrong. For their next study, the researchers hope to determine the mechanism involved in memorization in cats, and to what extent the latter understands language.

Source: Scientific Reports

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