Despite annoying headlines that pop up every year or so, no self-respecting cat paw-rent will concede that dogs are smarter than cats. The studies that back these claims often point to a dog’s ability to recognize well over 100 words and signals while cats typically top out around 25-30. But is list memorization really the best indicator of intelligence? Human education has long been moving away from memory-focused curriculums in favor of exploring emotional intelligence and problem-solving skills, and no one can deny that cats, those masters of manipulation, have the upper paw here.
What is intelligence anyway?
Is it a mark of great intelligence to roll over on command and come when called, or does it take a higher level of thought to choose whether or not to comply? Cat families would certainly claim the latter, but the notion of choice only holds up if cats actually understand their names. For centuries, no one really knew if Fluffy did know she was Fluffy, if she just recognized the tone you used at dinnertime, or even just sensed the time of day like many other species. If she doesn’t even know who she is, it’s tough to say she’s as smart as a dog, let alone smarter, but there’s good news from Japan: Cats do know their names. And more.
How do we know they know?
In 2019, researchers from the University of Tokyo made a series of friendly house calls to volunteer cats in their homes across the Japanese capital, equipped with recordings of strangers speaking four words and then the name of the cat, using the same tone for all words. Upon hearing their own names, most neko (“cats,” in Japanese) responded by turning their heads, twitching their ears, or even meowing back, clearly indicating that they recognized their names. To be sure, researchers went a step further to assure that cats weren’t just responding to a general sound, but a specific name.
Okay . . . how?
In each case of the experiment, the first four recorded words were tailored to be similar in sound to the cat’s name. In most cases, the kitty subject did perk up after hearing the first or even second word, but often ignored the researcher for words three and four, indicating that he or she realized these words were similar but irrelevant, and only tuned back in with a full response when the fifth word—the correct name—was spoken. Not only are cats able to identify their names, but it’s clear they can isolate the exact structure and sound of their exact names, not just the general idea. The attention they exhibited when the first and second nonsense words were spoken was similar to when we hear a name that sounds like our own, pay closer attention for a moment, then go back to our own business when we realize no one was speaking to us. It’s social intelligence.
Okay, but they’re just reacting to the only name they ever hear. That’s kind of easy.
True, but that’s why this team of researchers conducted another round of experiments in multi-cat households. In this case, similar-sounding nonsense words were replaced by the names of the cat’s feline siblings, which they presumably heard as often as their own in daily life, and the kitty subjects reliably responded only to their own names. And it turns out that they probably know their siblings’ names, too, so they may know when you’re playing favorites by paying more attention to one than another!
How do we know that if they didn’t react at all to the other names?
In a third round of experiments, researchers headed to one of Tokyo’s famed cat café’s, where groups of adoptable cats play all day as patrons sip coffee, eat pastries, and play with the kitties in designated environments. Here, cats live temporarily among other kitties in populations that regularly evolve as cats are adopted out and newbies come to fill their places and meet the public, so new names are constantly arriving as old ones disappear. In this environment, researchers found that all the tested cats were able to separate their names from similar-sounding words, but only some could separate their names from their friends’ names.
Didn’t they just fail, then?
No. Many cats in cafés are young and still learning the names newly assigned to them by shelters and rescues, and this is made all the more difficult by living among a group of cats who are constantly being addressed by staff and visitors indiscriminately calling out names and hoping to get a response from any willing furball. While it takes some time for each cat to hone in on which name is actually his or her own, the response from these tested kitties sometimes responding to each other’s names but never to other words shows that they are able to identify the difference between names and casual speech. And this is why you better be careful about addressing one cat more than another in your household—by the time they learn their own name, they totally know you’re addressing another cat!