Cats know their names, but don’t expect them to always come when you call.

By Haylee Bergeland, CPDT-KA, RBT
October 22, 2020
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Kitty, Mittens, Frank, Porkchop. Whatever you named your cat, and whatever cute nicknames you end up using for her, domesticated felines can understand their monikers. While there isn’t as much research about cat behavior as there is about dog behavior, recent studies have demonstrated that cats do indeed listen for their names.

Cats Pay Attention to Us 

Cats are hardwired to be independent hunters and are built to pay close attention to their environment. Throughout our history with cats, the jobs we have given them tend to require a more self-sufficient nature, where our presence isn’t necessary for success (like hunting mice). 

Yet cats are also social creatures with complex emotions that they share with us and use to make decisions. They find their humans to be great data providers. For instance, research shows that cats are more inclined to pay attention to novel objects and experience positive feelings if their owner does too. 

Though their behavior and body language may not seem as obvious to us as our dogs’ (what’s a cat without a little mystery?), they really are paying close attention. 

Why Doesn’t Your Cat Come When Called?

Even though your cat can readily discriminate sounds and cues, like their name, that doesn’t say anything about how they will respond.

Although you may really want your kitty to come whenever you beckon, cats may find themselves … already busy. How, and when, a cat responds likely depends on their kitty nature, motivation, and current feelings. When you’re not offering nummies or play sessions, the sound of their name is just not as big of a motivator as you think it should be. Is your cat sunbathing? Or is your cat in a deep sleep in their favorite hiding spot? Those are times when your fancy feline is likely to pick what they are currently doing over whatever you want them to do (can you blame them?). 

“All-too-often we expect cats to respond immediately the way dogs do. Owners who compare the two are really doing a disservice to both species. Love and appreciate cats for who they are and stop measuring them against dogs,” says Pam Johnson-Bennett, CCBC, author and owner of Cat Behavior Associates, LLC.

Credit: Emma Darvick

Use Their Name Throughout The Day

To really hone in on name recognition, and create a cat more likely to respond to your summons, try incorporating your cat’s name into other activities that grab their attention. For instance, if you feed your cat on a schedule, and they get excited for meal times, say their name right before you put down the food bowl. Try saying their name right before you offer a favorite toy or when they come to you for pets. 

“If a cat associates something positive with the name, especially when spoken by a familiar human, there's more of a chance of a response,” Johnson-Bennett says.

You should never use punishment with your cat and should make extra sure to never associate your cat’s name with punishment. “Calling the cat's name to deliver any form of punishment teaches a cat to avoid responding in the future, “ Johnson-Bennett says.

Teach Your Cat Their Name Using a Clicker

Cats make excellent learners when you know what motivates them and what they find reinforcing. In fact, they respond very well to clicker training. Once your cat understands that the sound of the clicker means they’ll get a treat, you can use the clicker to teach your cat their name as well as cues like “come.

Remember that training should be fun for your cat. If your cat becomes bored, walks away, or becomes disinterested in the treats, stop your session and wait for another opportunity when they are likely to be motivated.