The Mystery of a Cat’s Name. Do Kitties Ever Forget Who They Are?

Introduction

Cats make great companions for many pet owners. They can be playful, affectionate, and entertaining with their antics and unique personalities. As you form a bond with your feline friend, you likely call them by a chosen pet name when feeding, playing, or getting their attention. But can cats actually recognize their own names when we call for them?

This article will explore the evidence around cats responding to their names. We’ll cover cats’ ability to recognize names as distinct words, how their memory can be impacted by age and disuse, and tips for re-training a cat who seems to have forgotten their name. Read on to learn more about your cat’s ability to answer when called!

Cats Recognize Their Names

Studies show that cats are able to distinguish their own names from other random words and sounds. In a 2019 study published in Scientific American, researchers found that cats reacted more strongly when their owners called their names versus using random nouns (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/cats-recognize-their-own-names-even-if-they-choose-to-ignore-them/). This suggests that cats are able to recognize their names as distinct auditory cues.

The ability to recognize their names is part of cats’ capacity to communicate with humans. According to a National Geographic article, studies indicate cats associate their names with rewards or attention from their owners (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/cats-recognize-names-dogs-pets). So even though cats may sometimes ignore their names being called, the evidence shows they are able to distinguish their names from other words.

Names as Recall Cues

A cat’s name can help it associate commands and actions with rewards and positive outcomes [1]. When owners use a cat’s name before issuing a command like “come” or “sit”, the name serves as a recall cue. Hearing its name first captures the cat’s attention and primes it to listen for the command that follows.

Calling a cat by its name also helps create a positive association between the name and receiving a reward like a treat or petting [1]. With consistent training, saying the cat’s name becomes a conditioned reinforcer. The name itself becomes rewarding even without giving a treat each time.

Research shows that most cats will respond when their owners call them by name, even if they don’t always choose to come when called [2]. This indicates cats recognize their names as distinct sounds with specific meaning. Owners can leverage this recognition by using names to get a cat’s attention before giving a command or cue.

Forgetting Due to Aging

Senior cats can suffer from cognitive decline as they age, similar to dementia in humans. This is medically referred to as feline cognitive dysfunction (FCD) or cognitive dysfunction syndrome. Studies show that over 50% of cats aged 15 years or older exhibit signs of cognitive decline.

As cats age, their memory and learning capabilities decline. One of the most noticeable signs is that senior cats may no longer respond reliably to their own names. This is because the name acts as a recall cue, triggering the cat’s memory of its identity. However, with cognitive dysfunction, the neural pathways for memory and recall degrade over time.

Other signs of feline cognitive decline include disorientation, altered social relationships, disrupted sleep cycles, loss of litter box training, and irritability. Unfortunately, there is no cure for cognitive dysfunction in aging cats. However, some supplements, environmental enrichment, and medication can help slow progression. It’s important for owners to continually work with and stimulate their senior cats, through training exercises and engaging play, to keep their minds sharp for as long as possible.

Forgetting from Lack of Use

Cats learn their names through consistent repetition and association with rewards like pets, treats or attention. According to an article on science.org, research shows that cats may recognize their own names because it’s the word humans say most frequently to them. Repeated usage strengthens the cat’s response.

However, infrequent use of a cat’s name can weaken their response over time. As explained in an article from marthastewart.com, while cats recognize fewer words than dogs, they can still recognize several words, including their names. But this recognition depends on the name being used consistently. If humans stop saying the cat’s name regularly, the cat may no longer associate the name with responding to their human.

To maintain a cat’s response to its name, it’s important to use the name frequently when interacting with the cat. Pet owners should make a consistent effort to say the cat’s name before feeding, playing, petting or giving any attention. This repetition reinforces the connection in the cat’s mind between its name and positive rewards.

Distraction and Confusion

Cats can easily become distracted by sights, sounds, and smells in their environment. Their highly sensitive senses allow them to detect even subtle stimuli that humans may not notice. A study on olfaction in cats found their sense of smell is 14 times better than humans (Zhang et al., 2022).

When overloaded with stimuli, a cat may fail to respond to their name being called. Loud noises, unusual smells, or the presence of other animals can overload a cat’s senses and cause stress. Research shows chronic stress negatively impacts feline health and suppresses their immune system (Battersea, 2023).

Excessive distraction makes it difficult for a cat to focus their attention on their owner long enough to recognize their name is being called. The best approach is to eliminate sources of distraction and stress before attempting to re-train a cat to their name.

Hearing Loss

Hearing loss, both partial and total, can affect a cat’s ability to recognize their name [1]. Deafness is more common in senior cats as well as cats with white fur and blue eyes. As cats age, they gradually lose hearing ability, particularly in the high frequency range, due to degenerative changes in the inner ear. This often goes unnoticed by owners. Complete hearing loss or deafness affects around 17% of cats by the age of 13 years old [2].

With partial or total deafness, auditory cues like a cat’s name become less effective. Owners may believe their cat is ignoring them, when the cat genuinely cannot hear its name being called. Deaf cats often have trouble locating where a sound is coming from, appear more startled by noises, and vocalize more loudly.

Cats rely heavily on visual cues, so deafness does not affect them as severely as it would a dog. However, it’s important for owners to adapt to their cat’s hearing limitations. Using consistent hand signals, keeping the cat in sight when giving cues, and gentle physical touching helps the deaf cat focus. Extra patience and care is required when training a deaf cat. With time, they can learn to respond to visual versions of cues. But their hearing loss does mean they will have a harder time recognizing their name.

[1] https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/living-with-a-deaf-cat

[2] https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/deafness

Vision Loss

Vision loss due to age or disease does not necessarily impair a cat’s ability to recognize their name. Even blind cats can rely on auditory cues to identify familiar voices and respond to their names being called (Source). While vision allows cats to recognize facial cues and body language, hearing is also important for communication.

Blind cats or those with limited vision capacities quickly adapt to relying more heavily on non-visual information. Scent, sound, routine, and touch help blind cats navigate their environment. As long as a cat’s hearing is intact, they can still distinguish their name from other words and sounds. Saying a cat’s name will capture their attention even if they cannot see the source of the sound.

However, vision loss can increase feelings of insecurity and disorientation for cats. It’s important for owners to keep furniture arrangements consistent and use verbal cues to reassure blind cats. With patience and care, cats can maintain their quality of life despite vision impairment. Their ability to recognize their own name is an important touchpoint for maintaining that bond.

Tips for Re-Training

One of the best ways to re-train a cat to recognize its name is through positive reinforcement with treats. According to Zoetis Petcare, “In a clear and happy tone, say your cat’s name. As soon as they look at you in response, immediately reward them with a treat placed right in front of them.” The key is to get the cat’s attention first by making eye contact, and then immediately providing a reward when it responds to its name.

Repetition is also important when re-training a cat to recognize its name. WikiHow recommends saying the cat’s name frequently throughout the day during playtime and when feeding. With enough repetition paired with positive rewards, the cat will begin to form the association again between the sound of its name and receiving a treat or attention. Consistency is key, so all family members should participate in re-training by calling the cat’s name and rewarding response.

Sources:
https://www.zoetispetcare.com/blog/article/how-teach-cat-name
https://www.wikihow.com/Teach-a-Cat-to-Recognize-Its-Name

When to Seek Help

A sudden change in a cat’s response to their name can sometimes indicate illness or other issues. According to veterinarians from JustAnswer.com, “My biggest question is whether or not it’s safe to wait a few hours for her to be seen. The closest emergency vet is 45 minutes away.”

If your cat stops responding to their name and there is no clear explanation for the behavior change, it’s a good idea to consult your veterinarian. An unexplained change in behavior may be the first sign of an underlying medical issue that requires treatment. As the veterinarians advised, it’s best not to wait if the change seems sudden and concerning. Seek professional veterinary advice to identify and address any potential illness or condition causing your cat to forget their name.

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