29 Oct What’s in a Name?
By Ramona D. Marek, MS Ed.
What’s in a Name?
What’s in a name? It’s an age-old question that we ask ourselves. Our name, our personal identity, defines who we are, our sense of self and what path we may choose in life. We often find ourselves living up or down to our name, or changing it all together. But does it matter what we name our cats? Well, yes, yes it does for some similar reasons that our name matters to us.
Right along here I expect someone to interject the question, “Why does it matter? A cat’s just going to ignore you when called.” I’m happy to answer that question with a science-based answer. We’re accustomed to a dog’s reaction when we call his name–wagging tail, happily panting and abundance of doggy affection bestowed upon us. Cats, not so much. That’s because cats adhere to the uniquely feline behavior code.
Science Says Yes
To be fair, more studies have been done with dogs than cats. The research on cats that has been done illustrates that they can recognize human gestures, facial expressions and vocal cues as well as distinguish their owner’s voice from a stranger’s. But, can a cat recognize its own name?
Short answer: Yes. A group of researchers in Japan tested cats’ ability to not only recognize their names when called by humans but recognize it from random words that sound like their name. The test was conducted in the relaxed atmosphere of the cat’s home with the owner out of view. There were several experiment variations. First, the team played a recording of the owner’s voice reading a list of four words followed by the cat’s name. The list of words were similar in length and accent as the cat’s name. In the second variation, a stranger read a list of nouns and then the cat’s name. Another change was for multi-cat homes. The owner, then stranger, read the names of other cats in the household followed by a specific cat’s name.
The results were clear, subtle, but a clear feline response. The majority of cats recognized their names demonstrated by ear or head movements when read from a list of like sounding words, whether by owner or an unfamiliar voice. Fewer than 10 percent of the cats demonstrated vocalization, tail movement or displacement. The researchers concluded, “cats living in ordinary households can distinguish their own names from general words and names of other cats. This is the first experimental evidence showing cats’ ability to understand human verbal utterances.”
The researchers also conducted the test on cats in a cat café. The had similar results in that the cats recognized their names from a random list of nouns but not from the names of other cats in the café. The researchers suggest variables such as different vocal intonations by different people, no relevant reward, or high number of cat cohabitation in the cat café may have affected the results. They couldn’t draw a definitive conclusion because the test was conducted in only one cat café.
Does this mean cats recognize their name as their identity? The researchers say the answer is inconclusive, however, lead study author Atsuko Saito of Sophia University in Tokyo told The Associated Press, “What is clear is that the cat’s name is “salient stimulus,” and may be associated with rewards, such as food, petting, and play.”
Sophie may not fully identify herself as “Sophie” but she does know that her name is meaningful. She may not bound toward you at the call of her name but you will get an ear twitch. She knows her name but now she wants to know what’s in it for her to respond. Is she going to get a reward or a stressor, like trip to the vet? Think about this way. When you were a kid and your mother called you for fresh baked cookies, you mostly likely dashed to the kitchen for the sweet treat. But, if she called you by your full given name in that unmistakeable “Mom voice,” did you want to answer? Nope, nuh-unh, no way. Neither does your cat.
The Name Game
One of the fun parts of getting a cat is choosing the name and the sky’s the limit for choices. Popular names come from pop culture, physical or personality traits, or your cat’s life story. You could have a party and invite friends to help choose a unique name. Or maybe you’ll keep the name your cat was given at the shelter.
Here are a few popular cat names: Luna, Bella, Chloe, Lily, and Sophie for the girls. Top boy names include Oliver, Leo, Max, Charlie and Milo.
Science shows us cats do recognize their names. Science also shows us that there are certain sounds cats respond to better than others. To make it easier for your cat to recognize her name follow these suggestions:
- An “ee” ending. Cats respond better to high-pitched voices, preferring women’s voices over men’s. Cats also respond better to names that end with “ee” or the long e vowel sound.
- Choose a two-syllable name. Two syllables resonate better with pet recognition.
- “ck” in the name. It’s thought, from an auditory perspective, names with a “ck” (k sound) in name are more easily recognized by dogs and cats.
A popular name from the list is “Chloe,” which happens to follow the suggestions. What other names can you think of? One of our two cats is a silver tabby Siberian. The breed is from Russia and we wanted a regal name so we chose Tsarevich Ivan. That’s a mouthful, hard for some people to say, let alone a cat. (Tsarevich means son of a Russian tsar.) We pronounce his call name, Ivan, as “Eevan.” He is our prince.
How Not to Address a Cat
Choosing an appropriate name for your cat should be fun, yes, but it should also be respectful. Respectful doesn’t mean dry, boring or without imagination. A name is personal, it reflects on both you and your cat. You do want your cat to come to you when you call, right? You’re going to call your cat often so think of a name you, your family, friends and staff at the vet clinic won’t be embarrassed to call out loud. Taking a riff from T. S. Eliot, here are some tips for how not to address your cat.
- Don’t scold your cat by name. This is a set up for fear–your cat will learn to fear the name and fear you. Use a loud “No!” and stop there.
- Don’t use a name that rhymes with “No.” More fear, anxiety and stress for your cat! Your cat will associate it with negative associations of a scolding.
- Negative associations. Names with true negative associations set up negative reactions from people toward your cat. No one wants that.
- Don’t use demeaning, derogatory, tasteless names. Names like Jerk, and worse, set up a negative self full-filling prophecy relationship for you and your cat. If you call your cat and she doesn’t come to you, she isn’t a jerk. She’s weighing her options. Reward or stress? Better to learn the natural feline behaviors to enhance your relationship or don’t have a cat.
True story. Our other cat is a stunning brown tabby we adopted from our local humane society. She was a bottle rocket of energy! We wanted to keep the Russian theme so we considered naming her Katyusha, after the Russian rocket launcher. I reconsidered that name because I didn’t want to set her up with a negative connotation to live up to. As a nod to Rocky and Bullwinkle, I chose the name Natasha Fatale because, as a child, I thought that cartoon character was exotic. Our Natasha Fatale is our exotic diva.
How to Address a Cat
Naming your cat is a joyful part of bring home a cat. Choosing just the right name takes time, thoughtful consideration and understanding that cats do recognize their names. Choose one that you’ll both enjoy that celebrates your loving, happy, life-long relationship together. Perhaps T. S. Eliot can inspire you:
THE AD-DRESSING OF CATS
You’ve read of several kinds of Cat,
And my opinion now is that
You should need no interpreter
To understand their character.
You now have learned enough to see
That Cats are much like you and me
And other people whom we find
Possessed of various types of mind.
For some are sane and some are mad
And some are good and some are bad
And some are better, some are worse —
But all may be described in verse.
You’ve seen them both at work and games,
And learnt about their proper names,
Their habits and their habitat:
How would you ad-dress a Cat?
So first, your memory I’ll jog,
And say: A CAT IS NOT A DOG.
Now Dogs pretend they like to fight;
They often bark, more seldom bite;
But yet a Dog is, on the whole,
What you would call a simple soul.
Of course I’m not including Pekes,
And such fantastic canine freaks.
The usual Dog about the Town
Is much inclined to play the clown,
And far from showing too much pride
Is frequently undignified.
He’s very easily taken in —
Just chuck him underneath the chin
Or slap his back or shake his paw,
And he will gambol and guffaw.
He’s such an easy-going lout,
He’ll answer any hail or shout.
Again I must remind you that
A Dog’s a Dog — A CAT’S A CAT.
With Cats, some say, one rule is true:
Don’t speak till you are spoken to.
Myself, I do not hold with that –
I say, you should ad-dress a Cat.
But always keep in mind that he
I bow, and taking off my hat,
Ad-dress him in this form: O CAT!
But if he is the Cat next door,
Whom I have often met before
(He comes to see me in my flat)
I greet him with an OOPSA CAT!
I’ve heard them call him James Buz-James —
But we’ve not got so far as names.
Before a Cat will condescend
To treat you as a trusted friend,
Some little token of esteem
Is needed, like a dish of cream;
And you might now and then supply
Some caviare, or Strassburg Pie,
Some potted grouse, or salmon paste —
He’s sure to have his personal taste.
(I know a Cat, who makes a habit
Of eating nothing else but rabbit,
And when he’s finished, licks his paws
So’s not to waste the onion sauce.)
A Cat’s entitled to expect
These evidences of respect.
And so in time you reach your aim,
And finally call him by his NAME.
So this is this, and that is that:
And there’s how you AD-DRESS A CAT.
Atsuko Saito, Kazutaka Shinozuka, Yuki Ito & Toshikazu Hasegawa. Domestic cats (Felis catus) discriminate their names from other words. Scientific Reports. April 4, 2019 (updated September 10, 2019).
T.S. Eliot Reads T. S. Eliot: “The Ad-dressing of Cats,” 1947