There Is Now Scientific Proof Your Cat Is Ignoring You (#GotBitcoin?)
New study finds felines can distinguish their names, even if they don’t come when called; twitching ears. There Is Now Scientific Proof Your Cat Is Ignoring You (#GotBitcoin?)
Researchers spent months getting to the bottom of an eternal question: Is my cat ignoring me?
The answer is most likely, yes.
A study released Thursday revealed what most cat lovers (and haters) already believed: Cats know when you’re addressing them, they just may not care.
Japanese researchers found most domestic cats (scientific name Felis catus) could distinguish their own names from other similar nouns. According to the study of 78 cats, that doesn’t mean they’ll come when they’re called.
Science still has less understanding of cats’ cognitive and social abilities, compared with the domestic dog (Canis familiaris). Past research has shown dogs can recognize humans’ emotional states, and the pitch of a human voice can affect dog behavior and how they follow commands. Highly trained dogs can even distinguish between over 1,000 different words or symbols, according to one 2011 study.
Cats, however, are more of a mystery, partially because cats aren’t typically studied for their social skills, and partially because they’re, well, cats.
“They’re so shy in strange environments, and they freeze up and cry and don’t act normally,” says Jennifer Vonk, a psychologist at Michigan’s Oakland University who studies animal cognition and is an owner of nine cats. “They’re not really as motivated. Dogs are definitely easier to work with.”
Many cat owners firmly believe their cats recognize their own names when they’re being called, though there was no previous evidence to back up that claim. Atsuko Saito, a psychologist at Sophia University in Tokyo, is one of these cat owners (her cat’s name is Okara), so she set out to investigate the idea for herself.
“I think cats have almost the same abilities, but research about cats is so rare,” she says.
Dr. Saito and her team studied cats both in the cats’ homes and in cat cafes, where patrons can have a nosh and a cuddle with house felines.
After waiting until the cats were calm before beginning the experiment, researchers played a recording of a series of four spoken nouns, followed by the cat’s name. The nouns used were meant to sound similar to the cats’ names. Researchers tracked vocalizations and movements of the cats’ heads, ears and tails following the sounds.
Most cats responded viscerally to the first word and then reacted less with each following word, as they got used to the sound from the recorder. When those cats heard their name, however, they had an increased reaction.
The cats twitched their ears or their heads toward the sound, interpreted as a sure sign of recognition. They rarely moved position, however, so there was no apparent indication of further interest.
“The response is very subtle,” says Dr. Saito, citing that as a key difference between cats and dogs.
Cats who live in homes with other felines could also distinguish their own names from the names of other cats. Cats in the cafes had a tougher time with that task, mostly likely due to the environment, the researchers note.
The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.
At the risk of dashing the hopes of owners who put their hearts into coming up with the perfect name, it is unlikely cats associate the call with a sense of self, researchers say. More likely, cats associate that specific sound with some sort of reward, like food or petting or playing, and come to learn that the reward will follow the sound. That is how most species, like dogs, learn how to assign meaning to specific sounds.
“Cats are just as good at learning,” says John Bradshaw, an anthrozoologist at the University of Bristol, who wasn’t involved in the study. “They’re just not as keen to show their owners what they’ve learned.”
Many researchers believe the way dogs and cats express themselves comes down to evolutionary differences and the history of domestication. A lot remains unclear, but it’s largely thought that dogs, already social animals, were selected by humans and bred to obey commands, while cats simply began hanging around human encampments where it was easier to catch food.
Cats may not come running when they’re called or do more than glance in a human’s general direction, but that doesn’t mean they’re always being purposefully sassy or defiant. “There’s this idea that if the cat isn’t approaching you that they’re maybe ignoring you,” says Kristyn Vitale, a postdoctoral researcher who studies cat cognition at Oregon State University and has four cats of her own. “Who set that as being the thing that means they’re paying attention?”
Perking up and looking at an owner can be just as good of an indicator that the cat is interested, she says.
There is also research showing that when given the choice between food, toys and human interaction, the majority of cats actually choose human interaction. The motivation largely depends on the cat itself. “It’s important for people to not just paint cats all in the same light,” says Dr. Vitale, who also trains cats.
Any show of affection doesn’t necessarily mean humans are really in charge, say cat experts.
“We sort of reward them for doing what they want to do. Oh, you’re in my lap? I won’t get up then,” says Dr. Vonk. “I think they’re better at manipulating our behavior than vice versa.”
The Meow Parlour in Manhattan houses many cats, including three kittens named for characters of the ’90s television show “Boy Meets World.” Cory, Shawn and Topanga each have their own distinct personalities, says Christina Ha, co-founder of the cat cafe. The kittens don’t understand their names yet, she says, but that could change as they grow up.
Ms. Ha says the cats in cafe often come from different homes, and eventually get adopted, sometimes getting new names. But all the cats pick up some sort of verbal cues. “They always know when it is meal time. It’s something that you say or do that triggers them,” she says
Cats can be trained, though for some it is easier than others. For Anne Stesney, from Brooklyn, N.Y., her cat Sushi can sit and give his paw and shake on command, but Turnip won’t budge. “He’ll only come to you when he wants to come to you,” she said.
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