A team of researchers at Kyoto University in Japan recently investigated whether non-human animals attach human speech labels to objects or other living beings. While we generally know that some non-human animals are capable of this (anyone who knows to avoid saying the word “treat” around their dog has seen it first-hand) these psychologists and animal scientists focused specifically on one type of creature: cats . They found that cats not only attach human labels to objects in their lives, but memorize the names of familiar cats and divide their attention accordingly.
The researchers individually visited 48 cats. Nineteen were household cats living with at least one other cat, while the other 29 lived in cat cafes (an increasingly popular social venue where guests can freely interact with resident cats). Each cat was individually presented with a recording of their owner calling a familiar cat’s name, a photograph of a familiar cat, or both.
The team found that both housecats and cafe cats expressed interest and curiosity when presented with visual and audio stimuli related to a cat they knew. However, housecats were more likely to investigate the presentation area after experiencing only one form of stimulus (ie just a photo of a familiar cat or just a recording of a familiar cat’s name being called). They also showed that cats living with larger groups of humans (like families) memorized their human companions’ names more than those living with only one or two humans. This is likely because people living in larger groups need to speak each other’s names out loud more than those living alone or with a partner or roommate.
In a similar fashion, the researchers also tested the cats’ response to photos and audio recordings associated with humans they knew. Though the cats did investigate these stimuli, they didn’t do so for as long as they did when presented with stimuli based on familiar cats. According to a paper published in Scientific Reports in April, the team believes this is because cats are not typically in competition with humans, making it less important for cats to memorize their names or faces.
“Although the ancestral Libyan wildcat (Felis lybica) is a solitary species, many domestic cats live with humans and show evidence of social cognitive operations concerning humans. They can use human pointing cues and gaze cues to find food. They also discriminate between human facial expressions and attentional states and identify their owner’s voice,” the study reads. “This is the first evidence that domestic cats link human utterances and their social referents through every day experiences.”
The researchers say more research will be necessary to determine the process by which cats memorize their companions’ names and features, as well as whether specific types of relationships affect their level of memorization. After all, while it’s important (and adorable) that cats learn their friends’ names, it’s likely even more important that they memorize those associated with their foes.