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I call my cat by his name, "Sterling", often, either to tell him nice things ("I love you too, Sterling") or when I need to blame him for something ("Sterling, NO. NO pushing things off of tables!"), or just to call him. I don't expect him to come when I call him, but I would just like him to know his name.

But I really have absolutely no idea if he does, in fact, know his name. Is there any way to tell?

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There's a high probability that he doesn't really know his name. The problem is that we use our pet's names too often and in too many different contexts. As you describe in your question, we usually call our pets by their name with a lot of hidden meanings. We should try to avoid doing that. Especially in case where we want to stop them. If every time you stop him from doing something you call his name, there will be a negative association: "when I hear "Sterling" I have to stop doing funny things, that's very upsetting" (OK, that's a bit anthropomorphic...).

The goal when you call his name should be to have him look at you, even in the presence of distractions.

If you want to teach Sterling to respond to his name here's how I suggest to proceed. The concepts that are used here are operant conditioning, positive reinforcement and reward markers. Operant conditioning means that you will condition the cat to respond to the signal (his name) with a behaviour that he learned (looking at you). You do that with a positive reinforcement: you reward him once he looked at you. He will then choose to offer the behaviour to get rewarded. Note that this is different from luring him to do the behaviour. You reward (positive reinforcement) once the behaviour occurred. The use of a marker means that you will "mark" the moment in time when you decide to reward. This greatly helps the cat to understand what he is rewarded for.

If you want to play this game, you could follow this recipe:

  • Choose a moment when you expect your cat to be interested and receptive, that could be when you feed him
  • Take some small treats (a fraction of his daily food or tiny bits of tuna for example), put your cat on a table or sit on the floor
  • The cat will probably be intrigued. As soon as he looks at you, say "yes", wait 2 seconds and give him a treat (*).
  • Don't call his name yet, just reward when he choose to look at you. You should notice that the frequency increases.
  • Keep doing that for a few days (**).
  • Once you're confident that he would look at you, start calling his name first. If he doesn't look at you, don't repeat his name, just attract his attention by other means.
  • When you progress, wait for longer eye contact duration before " yes and treat ".
  • Up to now you reward every time the behaviour is correctly done. Later you'll use a variable reinforcement ratio, this will further strengthen the behaviour.

  • (*) A classical conditioning is created between the marker and the reward. To create the association there has to be a delay between the two. No need to rush for the reward. The marker serves to pinpoint the exact action you reward, then the treat waits a few seconds.
  • (**) The goal is really to reinforce the cat, not to make it more difficult to stop the reinforcement. At the same time that will strengthen the conditioning between your marker ("yes") and the reward, this can then be used to train other things.
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    Some of this seems to mostly be for a dog. That sort of thing is easier with dogs, of course. Now, I have to find something that sterling actually LIKES. That's a challenge. He's a cat. His favorite thing seems to be to wait when I'm concentrating on something to then distract me. (Because cats find it non-threatening when you don't look at them directly, because they're stealth fighters, I know.) Tuna won't work. It's beneath him, it seems. (Yes, he's THAT fussy.) Maybe meat? I'll look into it and try that. Thanks. – eje211 Mar 22 '14 at 20:08
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    Yes, that's how it is done with dogs. That certainly works for cats too (as the same principles apply). Now it's up to us to make it work for these little guys... My cat is also above all usual treats. Now I'm using its favourite wet food: I put it in a small bowl, take a small amount with a spoon and I let him lick the spoon. – Cedric H. Mar 22 '14 at 20:43
  • Training cats is much like training dogs, except that cats generally won't work just for approval and even treats may not be effective unless the cat happens to be hungry. Dogs are always interested in food and care about pack status. – keshlam Dec 24 '16 at 0:44
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Cats typically don't have a lot of interest in learning words like dogs do. Most cats will respond to the tone you use and other cues, rather than trying to memorize the sound patterns of words. I've also found that sounds (not our words) tend to be a good way of getting their attention. One of my cats I can trill at and she will take that as a cue to come over, other ones I'll call over with other sounds. A stern tone when one is stealing food from another will sometimes give pause. Some cats have been taught words but it is not typical and would require a great deal of effort on your part. I don't think any of my cats "knows their name" or any other words, but it doesn't bother me, and I think I can communicate with them using tone, sounds, etc.

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How does he react if you call his name as opposed to another word? Mine will take a second to look at me when I say their name. That's about the easiest way to tell I think. It's pretty easy for me to know for sure, because I have two cats and when I say only one of their names only that one will react.

Although, it's important to note that if your cat reacts in the same way each time you say his name. For example, if he comes to you each time you say his name he probably thinks that his name means to come to you.

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    I can't tell if he's reacting to the sound or to his name. Or if he does know his name but just doesn't care that I'm using it. It's possible: he's a cat. – eje211 Mar 22 '14 at 20:06
  • Have you tried using his name in the middle of a sentence? Like if you start talking and once he looks away because you're not talking to him, that's when you say his name and see if it catches his attention. – Spidercat Mar 22 '14 at 21:43
  • Also try using another word (real or nonsense) in place of his name, in the same tone of voice, and see if he responds the same way. – starsplusplus Mar 24 '14 at 11:53
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I'm sorry to bump an old thread, I came here for something else (first time poster here).

I've never had a cat that didn't know their own name and the idea that a cat wouldn't is strange to me. It probably depends on how a cat is raised, but in a family with kids, giving the cat a name as a kitten, the cat picks up their name pretty quickly cause it's the word they hear most often. I agree that cats are more into listening for tones and they may respond to children's voices better than adults due to higher pitch, but I've had over 10 cats in my life and every one knew there name.

One cat, Vivian, she would respond to any similar sound like Lidian was just as good. (She was my brother's cat, later mine, and we never did experiments but probably other names like Didian, Vidian, anything like that might have work, and/or, she might have figured out the game and ignored the similar sounds after that - cats are smart that way).

Another cat I got already given and familiar with her name, "Precious", she used to come when she was called. She was raised in a one cat household when they had to get rid of her at 1 year and I had her sister so I took her in. (bad idea, they had no idea they were sisters after 1 year and there was some battles for territory). But 2 things happened. Precious figured out that Shadow (her sister/my other cat) didn't come when called so after about 2 weeks, precious stopped coming when I called her, what's more, Shadow figured out then when I called Precious, she wants to see what was going on, so she'd come, but shadow never came when I called her, she'd just look at me. Both cats seemed to not only know their own names but the other cat's name.

I've also had cats, when feeding them, would meow when their name was called (when there was no food on the counter, that performance wasn't repeated), but 2 cats in the same room, each one would meow after their name, they wouldn't both meow.

I think, raised with a name as a kitten, virtually all cats know their name and the idea that one wouldn't is a strange concept to me, but it might depend a lot on the situation the cat was raised in and how often he/she hears their name. I don't know about taking in a stray cat as an adult.

I do agree with some of the posts above, cats also respond to tones. That's accurate too, but there's name recognition as well and my cats recognizing and responding differently to the other cats name, said in the same tone, seems like strong evidence of that to me that they know both their name and the other cat's name and I've had 2 sets of cats that responded that way.

Now, does the cat know that as her name? Or hear her name as some kind of command? No way to know. My cat Shadow was really smart and she one time, started chewing on a wire (I know, that sounds dumb right), but I said her name in a different tone and she totally got it and she never chewed on a wire again at least for several years, as she got older she stopped listening to my instructions but I got several years of her leaving all wires alone. She could figure things out like that. I taught her never to scratch a person in the face in a similar same way, by tapping her on the side of the head, not hard, but stern and saying no, and she never scratched a person in the face again after that. Kittens are kind of programmed to learn things and figure things out, even if they don't learn command behaviors the way dog's do. Learning their name is something even the dumbest kitten should be able to do - imho.

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