Yes, Your Cat Really Is Ignoring You, According to a New Study
You're not just imagining it. Cats can understand human speech, to a certain degree–but they're also selective about what they respond to.
Here’s the thing about cats: When you want them to do something (stop scratching the couch! Come here!) it’s hard to tell if they ignore the command because they don't understand, or because they just don't care. A group of Japanese scientists decided to gain some insight by solving one of the basic building blocks of communication: names.
Cats do communicate with people. It can sometimes go unnoticed; most of a cat’s communication is done with body language and scent, the former of which is subtle and the latter of which is undetectable to our lousy human noses. But as humans, our primary communication method is vocal. Cats understand that they have a symbiotic relationship with us, so they meow—but do they listen?
Researchers at Japan’s Sophia University experimented by saying several different words, including names, to a variety of cats, both pets and in a cat cafe. They measured what kind of response the cats gave to these different words, which is more complicated than it sounds. Cat body language is complex, and the researchers had to distinguish between different types of body language, because not every movement means the same thing. If a cat points its head or tilts its ears toward a speaker, that’s called an “orienting response.” An orienting response is a recognition that something is happening, but not a response in itself. It’s kind of the equivalent of a human saying “mm.” in response to someone telling a story; it’s not really a response, but it indicates that you’re paying attention.
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The other type of response is a communicative response: either a vocalization like a meow or a tail movement. Cat tail movements are among the most prominent ways a cat expresses itself; the position of the tail indicates things like fear, happiness, and comfort.
The test the researchers used is called a “dishabituation-habituation” test. They’d say a variety of random words at the cats to sort of lull them; the cat is interested at the first word someone says (“what’s happening here?”) but after a few more, the cat realizes there’s nothing in it for them, and they become “habituated.” Lulled. That means that you can keep saying words, and if one of those words—like, say, the cat’s name—actually sparks a reaction, that reaction is very obvious.
What the researchers found is that cats absolutely distinguish between their names and other words, even if it’s not the cat’s owner speaking. In cat cafes, the cats distinguished names from non-names, but did not distinguish between their own names and the names of other cats in the cafe.
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This implies that cats do not really associate their name with any sort of self-identity, but they do know that when a human says a certain sound, it’s linked to something good happening: food, head scratches, treats, playtime. Cats are, in other words, capable of distinguishing human speech, at least to some degree. Whether they actually respond? That’s more of a lifestyle choice.