The Name of the Cat
January 9, 2009 Leave a comment
Cat owners and experts alike agree that cats know their names
Tekla is dozing on top of the computer monitor, one of her favorite places.
“Tekla-la!” I call out.
Her tail twitches and she meows softly.
Nearby, Dusty is snoozing in a bed on the shelf.
He stretches out a long limb and squirms in his bed.
Coco strolls by me in the bedroom.
Her tail immediately goes up and she breaks into a trot. She also gets all wiggly when I sing or whistle “her” song … “Coco, Coco Cabana, cutest cat north of Havana,” with apologies to Barry Manilow.
T.S. Eliot, in the inimitable “Old Possum’s Book of Cats,” better known as the musical “Cats, said cats have three names. The first is the name the family uses daily, the second is a fancier name (both of these are “sensible”) and the third is a name the cat himself knows and will never confess.
Cats may not necessarily come when you call them, but they’re not opposed to acknowledging their names. Consider it selective hearing. You know the adage: A dog comes when you call him, a cat takes a message. That message may be acknowledged by a mere ear twitch.
The second name Eliot refers to is probably not the one that goes on the records at the veterinarian’s office. More likely it’s an endearing variation on the cat’s real name, something that would make her blush if she were human. Tekla is Tekla-Baby-Girl-Kitten-Cat. Ashley, my Russian Blue of many years ago, was Miss Nibs in deference to her air of self-importance.
Rod, a longtime cat owner whose beloved feline died this summer, just adopted a year-old shelter kitty. He says Boo, his original kitty, certainly knew her name, and he says his new kitty, Celotte (named for her ocelot-like markings), is likewise responding. He’s already crooning sweet “Lotties” to her.
Since cats are better at hearing high-pitched sounds, it’s thought that cats respond better to names ending in “ee.”
Although no scientific studies have been conducted on whether cats know their names, well-known feline behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett, CABC, says it’s just a matter of overwhelming evidence.
“Based on my experience, cats know their names based on the particular word/sound you issue that has a previous positive association from either having been called for dinner or had their names repeated during petting,” she says.
In teaching a cat her name Johnson-Bennett recommends selecting an easily recognizable name and avoiding various nicknames until the cat makes the association. She says to avoid calling the cat’s name in anger then punishing her since she will never want to come to you again.
Johnson-Bennett says to use treats as a reward when teaching a cat her name. When she responds give her the treat, and work up to calling her from another room.
Similarly, clicker training can be used to teach a cat to come when her name is called. Karen Pryor calls it a “recall signal” and says it should never go un-reinforced.
Johnson-Bennett says teaching a cat her name can be a matter of safety if the cat is outdoors or inadvertently locked somewhere in the house. The tactic can also be used to head off an aggressive encounter between two cats. By sweetly calling out their names you can turn their attention from aggression to anticipation, then offer a treat.
“It’s the consistency of that word (their name) and the fact they know it means they’re getting something good,” says Johnson-Bennett.
Like most of us, cat expert Beth Adelman, CABC, believes cats clearly understand the concept of name.
“They come when I call them by their names, and Yin Yin does not come when I call Mei Mei or Yang Yang,” says Adelman. “If they’re already in the room, they look at me when I say their names.”
In what she describes as “mutual training” Adelman says her cats have created names for her and her husband to which they respond.
“We respond to these cat-given names the same way our cats respond to their names, which means the cats have taught us our names and we have reinforced their use,” she says.
Adelman says she tries not interpret this behavior in a human way and realizes that cats have a limited range of sounds. But she finds it just a bit weird that Yang Yang calls her “mom.”
While most of us are not fortunate enough to be named by our cats, there’s a simple way to get our cats to acknowledge their names. Just run the can opener or pop open a can of food.
As for the third name? I asked Tekla and she just gave me that inscrutable feline gaze.
This article, which first appeared in Pets Press, won the Cat Writers’ Association 2008 Muse Medallion for Newspaper Article, Other Topic.