Call a dog by its name and it will usually run towards you. Call a cat by its name and there is no telling what it might do.
Until recently, scientists weren't sure if this happened because a cat doesn't recognise its own name - or if, in fact, the cat is just choosing to ignore you.
To try to find out more, researchers in Japan carried out an experiment and found that cats probably do know their own name and that - if they are ignoring you - it's likely that they just can't be bothered to respond.
Compared to dogs, research on cats and cat behaviour is light. For instance, scientists have only recently started to investigate a cat's ability to communicate with humans. Over the past few years, studies have taught us that cats can recognise human facial expressions and vocal cues, and they can also follow a pointing gesture from a human hand, using the direction as a cue to find hidden food.
What hasn't been understood to date is whether or not a cat's ability to recognise vocal cues includes them being able to differentiate between different words. Can they recognise their own name from a group of similar-sounding words?
A series of experiments were set up to try to determine this. Scientists played sounds to cats that lived in different environments to see if they responded to the sound of their own name.
The project studied 78 cats that were either living at home with their owners or in cat cafes where they shared their environment with multiple cats and interacted with many new people throughout their day.
The cats were played recordings of their name, along with other sounds that sounded similar to their name (sounds that included a series of four different nouns of the same length).
To ensure that the cat was responding to their name and not just the emotion detected in their owner's voice, the test was carried out with both the cat's owner and the voices of people unfamiliar to the cat.
The cats were then videotaped while listening to the recordings to pick up any physical response, such as ear movement, head movement and tail swishing, that would indicate the cat had recognised a word.
When the cats heard the neutral nouns spoken, many of them just zoned out in what scientists refer to as habituation. This is where an animal – humans included – will learn to ignore signals, which include sounds and words that don't benefit or harm them.
Most of the cats behaved differently by moving their head or ears in response to hearing their own name and seemed able to identify their names among other similar sounding words. This led the researchers to conclude that the cat could distinguish its own name from other similar sounding words.
Although cats that lived with other cats in a home environment performed well, some of the cats from the cafe environment were unable to distinguish their own name from the name of other cats that they lived with. This suggests that the lack of individual bonding with one human for cats brought up in a cafe environment could inhibit those cats' ability to learn their own names.
The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, concludes that cats do recognise the sound of their name even when it's said by a stranger.
However, the experiment still wasn't able to distinguish if the cat actually understood that the word spoken was, in fact, their name, as opposed to a generic word that they affiliate with positive results such as food, cuddles or attention.
So cat lovers - the next time you call your cat by name and it doesn't respond, it probably really is being as smug as your dog-loving friends have always suspected.