From me at Mind Matters:
A recent study in Nature showed that many cats will slightly move their head and ears when their names are called, showing that they recognize their names. Responses to the study, which attracted a good deal of attention, demonstrated many of the misconceptions about animal vs. human thinking that naturalism fosters. Paper. (open access)
Briefly, when cognitive behaviorist Atsuko Saito and her colleagues studied cats who lived in households and at cat cafés, they found that most could distinguish their names from similar sounds spoken by humans. It’s not clear why we should be surprised; the cat probably knows from experience that something that concerns him will happen whenever he hears that sound…
The cat does not forget the “mother-ese” he learned as a kitten. He surely knows when a distinct sound like “MUFFIN!!” is directed at him. It’s easier than some may think: Is he likely to hear that exact sound when it isn’t directed at him? How many humans shout “MUFFIN!!” for no particular reason?
He also knows quite well what “MUFFIN, STOP SCRATCHING the SOFA!” means. He complies for the moment, then digs his claws into the sofa fabric again a few minutes later, once he thinks no one is looking. Is that because he is too stupid or obstinate to change his behavior? Not really. He responds when sounds he can interpret are directed at him. He has no concept that making a hole in the sofa is bad and feels no urge to understand human behavior, as opposed to just living with it. So, once the sound has faded, he goes back to using the sofa fabric to pull the sheaths off his claws. More.
Reality check: Animals don’t think using abstractions but they know what matters to them.
See also: See also: Barbara Kay vs the pit bull defenders (Another tale of the irrational friends of animals.)