Cats are often seen as being aloof or standoffish, even with their owners. Of course, that differs based on who that cat lives with and their lifetime of experience with humans. But when compared to man’s best friend, cats usually seem less interested in those around them, regardless of species.
However, a new study out of Japan has found that cats may be paying more attention to their fellow felines and human friends than most people thought. In fact, they could be listening to human conversations.
"What we discovered is astonishing," Saho Takagi, a research fellow specializing in animal science at Azabu University in Kanagawa Prefecture, told The Asahi Shimbun. "I want people to know the truth. Felines do not appear to listen to people's conversations, but as a matter of fact, they do."
How do we know they’re listening? Because the study shows that household cats often know the names of their human and feline friends.
The researchers studied 48 cats that live with at least two other pets either in a family home or at a café. Each cat was played a recording of their owner calling the name of a cat they lived with that was accompanied by a feline photo. Sometimes the photos were of the correct cat, other times they were not. The household cats spent a longer time looking at photos of the incorrect cat—a common reaction when animals are surprised.
"These results indicate that only household cats anticipated a specific cat face upon hearing the cat's name, suggesting that they matched the stimulus cat's name and the specific individual," the authors explained.
The researchers also tried the same experiment with their owner’s name being said alongside an accompanying photo that was either correct or incorrect.
The results show that some house cats stared longer at the monitor when the face didn’t match the name, suggesting they knew the human’s name. But they were more familiar with the names of the cats in the home. The study found that cats that lived in a larger human family “attended for longer to the monitor in the incongruent condition” as well as those who had lived with the family for a longer period of time.
Researchers hypothesize that the cats are more familiar with the names of their feline counterparts than their human families because there is competition for food. “A cat might receive food when the owner calls her name but not when she calls another cat’s name,” the researchers wrote.
Unfortunately, café cats that are used to interacting with a greater number of strangers aren't as familiar with the names of their fellow felines or human friends.
"These results indicate that only household cats anticipated a specific cat face upon hearing the cat's name, suggesting that they matched the stimulus cat's name and the specific individual," the study says.
The authors believe that household cats may learn the names of other cats and humans but they aren’t sure why and "could not identify the mechanism of learning."
"It is still an open question how cats learn the other cats' names and faces," researchers note. Because, of course, a cat is never going to tell you everything.
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