Cats know the names of their fellow humans and cats

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Despite their reputation for being independent, and even antisocial, the cat appears to be the most popular pet in the world. Initially bred to hunt mice and rats, they have settled in many homes. In 2019, it was demonstrated that he recognizes his own name, like a dog. But unlike the latter, it is difficult to train, finally, to see if it accommodates and memorizes other words with referential meanings, such as a first name that refers to an individual. Recently, a team of Japanese researchers claimed that they proved that cats, in addition to recognizing their names, learn and remember the names of their mates with whom they live, as well as the name of their master(s). This discovery lays the foundation for deeper insights into linguistic cognition in cats.

We communicate in all aspects of life, referring to often imperceptible concepts and principles. Words include part of the referential meaning, regardless of place and time. We can talk about things that are not physically there, have not yet been achieved or have already been transcended. Our actions are shaped in part by this language. This is also found in some animals. The titmouse, for example, behaves differently depending on the type of song. Modifications of ‘melody’, such as our words and tones, can warn another creature of immediate danger. In other words, a specific cry associated with a specific reference.

Since the early 2000s, there has been a significant increase in the number of cats in France, while the number of dogs tends to decline. While the latter show great intellectual and learning abilities, especially in terms of retained words associated with mental images, cats are not very docile in the face of learning. However, in recent years, scientists have shown that cats are closely related to humans. These complex creatures can communicate with us.

That’s why a Japanese research team, led by Saho Takagi, a zoologist at Kyoto University, evaluated whether cats associate human speech with the corresponding object. Their surprising finding, which shows that cats are more interested in what we say than we previously thought, was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Attentive ears and active memory

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

So the researchers observed the behavior of 48 cats, to determine this response or not. 29 lived in five “cat cafes”, where visitors could freely interact with the cats. The other 19 were domestic cats who lived with at least two other cats.

Initially, they presented (on a screen) the cats a homogeneous image (called a model cat) living with them, linked to the auditory stimuli that consisted of recording the voice of the owner calling the cat in question his name. For each subject, two identical trials (the name matched the image) and two mismatched trials (the image did not match the spoken name) were performed.

Schematic diagram of the principle of the experiment. Two model cats were selected from the cats living with this subject. The name of the typical cat called by the owner was broadcast through a speaker built into a laptop. Immediately after turning on, a cat’s face appeared on the screen. In half of the experiments, the name and face matched (matched condition). In the other half, they did not match (condition incompatible). © S. Takagi et al. 2022

Surprisingly, domestic cats spent more time staring at a computer screen during the incongruent experiment, remaining frozen and startled by the contrast between the typical cat’s photo and name. These results indicate that only domestic cats expected the typical cat image upon hearing its name. Scientists explain that café cats do not seem to learn the association between another cat’s name and its face. In fact, the environmental differences between house cats and cafe cats may be responsible. Simply put, according to the study, the longer cats live together and are more likely to hear humans calling them by name, the easier it will be to learn to associate a name with a specific name.

Cats worried about their owners?

In a second step, the authors performed a similar test, but using the human image as the stimulus rather than the cat model. They showed 26 cats a picture of a person they lived with (in a multi-person home) or a stranger (improper situation), after pronouncing the person’s name. Similar to the above, the cats remained frozen on the computer screen a little longer when there was a mismatch between the picture and the name. Moreover, this effect was significantly stronger in families with more people, as well as in those where the cat 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 a longer period. Green arrows show the most pronounced attachment behavior in incongruent situations (blue) for cats living with family members for a long time. © S. Takagi et al. 2022 (Edited by Laurie Henry for Trust My Science)

For the study authors, it is clear that a cat is able, in addition to learning its name, to remember the name of its master (just as a dog does) as well as the name of its peers. They indicate: This study provides evidence that cats associate their mate’s name with a matching face without explicit training “.

Cat behavior and learning are areas of growing study. In 2020, a study demonstrated the ability of cats to learn behaviors by watching what humans do. These discoveries will change our often stereotypical views and judgments about our four-legged friends. Even if they don’t seem interested in what we can do or tell them, it looks like we’re wrong. In 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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