Do cats understand when we try to instruct them, and just not care, or are they oblivious? Japanese researchers have gone some way to answering this very important question that has probably crossed the mind of most people who have lived with a cat.
If an animal understands just one word of human speech, it is likely to be its name, so Atsuko Kaito of Sophia University, Tokyo, set out to test cats' capacity to distinguish the names humans call them from other nouns. There has been extensive research on how well dogs understand us, and whether they are responding to specific words, or only to the tone of voice, but few similar studies on cats have reached peer reviewed journals.
Saito and colleagues observed cats' reaction to hearing their own names, compared to words of similar length, and the names of other cats of the same abode. In Scientific Reports they announce the majority of cats showed they are sentient enough to comprehend, moving their ears and heads to their names more strongly than to a string of preliminary words. The extra response never reached the cats' tails however, let alone inspired vocal responses. For a narrow majority, these responses could be triggered by voices other than their owners.
However, many of the cats, particularly those studied in a cat cafe, responded as much to the names of other felines housemates, as they did to their own.
Although cat communication with humans has been much less studied than its canine counterpart, the paper does note some things have been learned, including that cats are “modestly sensitive to their owner's emotions” (as if anyone owns a cat rather than being owned by them). Cats' ability to distinguish the voice of their human servants from strangers has also been proven.
However much cats may like to pretend they are wild creatures temporarily couch surfing in our homes, the paper notes the sounds made by Felis catus are more pleasant to the human ear than those of the African wild cat from which they are descended. Presumably this is because, over almost 10,000 years of living together, the cats with the greatest ability to communicate with us, have been the ones mostly likely to pass on their genes.
On the other hand, if cats have anything like the capacity to understand humans that dogs have demonstrated, for example, the ability to use human cues to find hidden food, they are keeping it under wraps.
Still, the next time you call your cat and they pretend not to know you are talking to them, you can at least feel confident they are faking it.