Am I giving my cat an identity crisis?
June 9, 2009 7:02 PM   Subscribe

Am I giving my cat a complex? I call my cat a large variety of names, including but not limited to her original name. She is a little over 10 years old and I've been calling her nicknames for the past, oh, 9 years and 363 days and today it occurred to me that maybe she is completely confused when I talk to her.

Okay, yeah, so I talk to my cat. And when I do, I call her by her name (Jabberwocky) or variant (Jabbles, Jabber, Jabbie) or other affectionate nicknames including but not limited to Craig, Stinky, Meowy, KittenKitKit and Craiger McCraigerson... you get the idea.

She usually responds to Jabberwocky and is now picking up on Craig since my SO and I discovered Graham Roumieu and his lovable Bigfoot, but sometimes when I talk to her she just looks at me like I'm a human talking to a cat. When I am, lets say, talking on the phone and use other names to address people I may be speaking to/about, she doesn't seem to notice or care. However, when I am petting her and call her the goofy names she looks vexed.

Should I stop torturing my cat and call her only by her God-given Monster-inspired name? Does she even care?
posted by banannafish to Pets & Animals (40 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
but sometimes when I talk to her she just looks at me like I'm a human talking to a cat.

Well, that's a cat for you.

We, too, call our cat a variety of names depending on the season. She responds to any and all of them, including her "real" name, whenever she feels like it, without any sort of consistency.
posted by nitsuj at 7:08 PM on June 9, 2009

Hold on, let me ask her.

Nope, she doesn't care. Babble on. FWIW, my cats have about 20 names each, as well.
posted by billysumday at 7:10 PM on June 9, 2009

My cat has about 50 names, he learned to love and answer to them all.
posted by fire&wings at 7:10 PM on June 9, 2009

Best answer: TS Eliot believed that cats have three names: the name(s) we give them, the names they know each other by, and a name known only to the cat herself.

Each of the names you give her are mere icing on the cake of her True Identity, and thus can never really affect her.

If TS Eliot is any sort of authority, of course.
posted by palindromic at 7:15 PM on June 9, 2009 [24 favorites]

I am convinced my cats listen to my tone of voice. However, reality is probably closer to that old Far Side cartoon.

What dogs hear: "Ginger blah blah blah Ginger blah blah blah"
What cats hear: "****************************"
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 7:17 PM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

My cat has lots of names as well. He responds to his actual name and two of the most frequently used nicknames, and he responds to the word "treat". Other than that, he just kind of squints at me and purrs when I talk to him. He's either content or trying to tune me out.
posted by bedhead at 7:22 PM on June 9, 2009

I have done this with all my cats. I don't think they mind. I once called my cat "Jackson" (her name had been beezer or tweezer or so on) and she looked at me like, "Yes? What is it you want?" This cat had been pretty indifferent to her name (ie if it was dinner time you got a response). So "Jackson" it was from then on- unless I called her "Jackie". So maybe they do mind or at least have preferences.
posted by pointilist at 7:24 PM on June 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

I second the "tone of voice" notion. I coo all sorts of nonsense at my cats and they come running regardless.
posted by ShadePlant at 7:25 PM on June 9, 2009

I have done this with all my cats. I don't think they mind. I once called my cat "Jackson" (her name had been beezer or tweezer or so on) and she looked at me like, "Yes? What is it you want?" This cat had been pretty indifferent to her name (ie if it was dinner time you got a response). So "Jackson" it was from then on- unless I called her "Jackie". So maybe they do mind or at least have preferences.

Huh. I just called my cat "Jackson" in my normal I'm-calling-you tone, and he turned and looked at me from where he was sleeping on the bed.

That being said, I think it's impossible not to be a cat-parent and call your Sweet Pea Sweetie Pie Sweet Potato Pie Kitty Mewser McMewser face a gazillion different names. There's something about cats that demands it.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:36 PM on June 9, 2009 [6 favorites]

Cats have no language skills. It doesn't matter what you say to them.
posted by Electrius at 7:53 PM on June 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I take advantage of the tone of voice thing all the time. "Who's a stupid little fuzzball? Is it you? Are you dumb? Yes you ARE dumb! Who's a dumb boy?".

Or if he's being a brat -- "Awwww, lookit the widdle asshole cat. Such a little asshole yes you ARE!"

And so on. He has no idea. Or at least he's not letting on.

Outside of that, Rasha is regularly Rasha, Rashacat, fuzzball, Cat, blue boy, fuzzybutt, pouss, kitters, Mr. Whiskers, Mr. White Feets... it goes on.
posted by mendel at 7:55 PM on June 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

Agreeing with everyone who says it's a tone-of-voice thing. I have three cats with varying degrees of sociability, and the most attention-loving one responds to anything we say when she's in the vicinity, whether directed at her or not. She would probably trot over cheerfully even if we blasted her with a string of obscentities (I don't have the heart to test this portion of the theory, though).
posted by amyms at 7:59 PM on June 9, 2009

Best answer: I used to look at my cat, right into her big kitty eyes and go, "Look at you, kitty. Just... not a thought in your head, is there?"
I love her to pieces but... she's got a brain the size of a walnut. Sure, you calling her different names may be confusing her. Moving her water bowl to the other side of the kitchen might confuse her too. She's a cat. Show her love and she'll... well, she'll probably puke on the floor right where you can step in cold puke first thing in the morning, but whatever. She knows she's loved.
posted by 8dot3 at 8:21 PM on June 9, 2009 [8 favorites]

Best answer: If you want your cat to continue to respond to her real name, it's definitely a good idea to only use her real name when you want her attention. According to this lady, it will confuse your cat if you use several different names when calling... But if you're just partaking in conversation, then it doesn't really make a difference. The cat can't tell the difference between "Hello," "bowling," "hotdog," or "Jabbers," or any other words you can say.
posted by Ms. Saint at 8:25 PM on June 9, 2009

I love cats. I wish I lived in a world entirely populated by cats.. no people at all. I think cats are very intelligent creatures. But.. do you really think your cat is thinking, 'stupid human, make a decision about my name already!?!' There's no real way to know how much she understands, I suppose, but I doubt your cat has any idea that you're calling it loads of different names.
posted by Mael Oui at 8:27 PM on June 9, 2009

Best answer: The Naming of cats is a difficult matter,
It isn't just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.

First of all, there's the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Johnathan, George or Bill Bailey -
All of them sensible everyday names.

There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter -
But all of them sensible everyday names.

But I tell you, a cat needs a name that's particular,
A name that's peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?

Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum -
Names that never belong to more than one cat.

But above and beyond there's still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover -
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.

When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

by T. S. Eliot
posted by mikeand1 at 8:28 PM on June 9, 2009 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Our cat is known by a variety of names--Fate (her actual name), Fateness, Chickadee, Chickie, Kitten, Chicken (a combination of "Chickie" and "Kitten") and others I'm probably forgetting right now.

If she's in trouble, she's "Fate." No nicknames. If we're trying to get her attention for some other reason, we use whatever name we feel like at the time. I don't think it matters much, honestly.
posted by Aleen at 8:32 PM on June 9, 2009

I think confusing your cat is a good thing.
posted by cazoo at 8:36 PM on June 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

I recently learned that we are not the second, or even third owners of our cats (adopted at age 3), but actually their fourth set of owners. They had different names every time, and if we are any indication, they also had countless nicknames. Somehow they still know when we are talking to them. So I agree that it's more about the situation and tone of your voice than a specific name. And anyway, a cat's not going to come when you call it.
posted by LolaGeek at 8:47 PM on June 9, 2009

They don't care as long as you feed them.
posted by now i'm piste at 8:50 PM on June 9, 2009

I have two perspectives on this, one for each of my cats:
1) Grizelda is a darling, gorgeous idiot, and will respond to pretty much anything. Grizzy, Zelda, Darlingcat, whingy, kitty, idiot, stinky, fluff-features, mongo... anything. There ain't nothin' between those ears but air and whingyness.

2) Tabitha, on the other hand, terrifies me with her intelligence. She responds to Tabitha, or Tabby. But nothing else, and only when she chooses to hear you (which is seldom). She's figured out how to open every door in the house, and I am conviced that she will evolve opposable thumbs by force of will alone. At which point we are all DOOMED.
posted by coriolisdave at 8:54 PM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

I adopted my cat when he was 9 years old. Before I got him, he had been called Logan (after wolverine). His prior people adopted him at age 2-3, from a humane society. God knows what he name was at that point. Now, his name is Horatio. He comes when he's called (strangely enough, but he is a Maine Coon). But he has a lot of names: I call him Kittybum, Sweet Bumps, Mr. Buttons, Funny Bunny, or just "sweetie". He likes it when I talk to him, and will start purring immediately if I direct some speech to him. But when I call him from outside, I use his official name and he comes.

I agree it's probably just tone of voice, but he certain knows when he's being addressed. I wondered about this too, though: I've had him only 2 years now, and I changed his name on him. He's 11 years old now. So how confused must he be about his name?

Maybe names are a human thing though, in terms of claiming a name as your own in a deep sense. Cats certainly appear to understand that we are communicating with them when we talk to them (Horatio has a set of special "mah" sounds to respond to questions and comments, so we have a back and forth conversations), but are listening more to tone of voice than for words.
posted by Hildegarde at 9:20 PM on June 9, 2009

You know, cats have such varying personalities, it's really hard to take one thing and say, "that's how cats are." Mine definitely seems to only respond to tone. I love it when she is randomly sitting with her back to me, facing the wall or something, and I start talking to her in the special tone reserved for her, and I can see her ears turn in my direction. She faces away from me for as long as she can muster but eventually gives in and at least deigns a glance to see if I look worth her time. And it always warms my heart when she can't resist my calls and comes running. Not that she doesn't occasionally leave me hanging. Anyway, I have seen other cats respond to a name with no discernible tone difference.
posted by JenMarie at 10:14 PM on June 9, 2009

My cats do know their individual names, i.e. when I call one that one will come and not the other (yes, they're very well-trained cats).
But tone of voice is indeed a "human is talking to me" signifier and I use it all the time. The only danger with that is that they're pretty smart and sometimes pick up a new name if I use it too often in that voice... which is why the girl now also responds to "rotten little cat."
posted by Billegible at 10:35 PM on June 9, 2009

while we called our golden retriever, Mackenzie, several different names (Kenz, Kenzer, Puppy, Caca, Baby) we usually reserved "Kenzie" for instances in which we needed his attention (i.e. "Kenzie, get over here!"). we would call him the other names when we were petting him or just playing around, not actually calling him or giving a command. fwiw, he never seemed confused. then again, he was perfect.
posted by gursky at 10:41 PM on June 9, 2009

You aren't confusing your cat. It's like the parenting philosophy that kids will be confused if more than one language is taught to them growing up. That's not the case; kids just learn. Same with your cat; she's not being confused, she's just learning what and when to respond to you. As long as you aren't calling some other cat any of those nicknames (Jabberwocky, Jabbles, Jabber, or Jabbie) in front of her, you won't be confusing her.
posted by jabberjaw at 12:52 AM on June 10, 2009

She's 10. The time for caring is over.

When one of my previous feline companion animals was around that age, his name was spontaneously changed from "Catman" to "Frank." He neither cared nor noticed.

But I tell you, a cat needs a name that's particular,
A name that's peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?

This was the basis that my ex-husband and I used when naming our (now my) cat. Her full name is Wensleydale Archipelago Quadrilateral.

For short, she's called "The Dale." Not just Dale. THE Dale. Not that anyone knows what a Dale is, but there you go. She's The Dale. She also knows her name, as in, if you say "kitty" the other cat comes bounding over (the other cat is also dumb as rocks) , whereas Wensleydale will pretty much only respond if you call her by her name. I can whisper "Wensleydale" and her ears will perk up from across the room.

Perhaps the odd name has something to do with her being a dick... Hrm...
posted by grapefruitmoon at 3:41 AM on June 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'll Nth what most have said: it really doesnt matter. It's more in the tone of how you speak the name than anything else. In the course of my old cat's 20 years of life, she was called Tigger, Fat Thing, a host of less than complimentary names depending on her behavior and ended up as 'The Snib'. She responded to all of them with a felines typical varying degrees of indifference. My brother's sibling cats have regular names, but he just refers to them collectively as 'The Quadrapeds' and I call the male cat 'Speedbump' (due to his nearly 25 pound lethargic frame). They dont care as long as the food dish is full and the litter box is clean.
posted by elendil71 at 4:06 AM on June 10, 2009

Best answer: My cat's name is Commander Jenkins. I usually call him 'Cat.' I do periodically hurl all manner of insults at him, and call him terrible names. I do this to cause a complex, because I don't want him getting to satisfied with his lazy, easy-going, catered-to life.

Man, that cat's a jerk.
posted by Shohn at 5:41 AM on June 10, 2009 [4 favorites]

I usually call my cat "Kitten," which is cute, because when I come home for lunch and from work at night, I yell "Kitten!" and she runs to meet me at the door.

Of course, it's possible she'd come running anyway, but I like to think she's responding to the "Kitten!" even though her real name is Juliet.
posted by elder18 at 7:28 AM on June 10, 2009

The only thing any of my cats respond to reliably is "tuna."
posted by Pufferish at 7:36 AM on June 10, 2009

I agree with everyone above that cats generally don't know their names. However, my old man, Fizgig responds quite well to his actual name. And on one occasion dished out some kitty justice when called by a nickname that was insulting. An old acquaintance of mine once snuggled Fiz and called him "Mr. Fizzy Giggles" in a very saccharin tone. He promptly swatted her in the face and never interacted with her again. Then again, maybe he just did that because he knew deep down she was insane, or maybe it was the insult of "Mr. Fizzy Giggles." The world may never know.
posted by teleri025 at 7:47 AM on June 10, 2009

Best answer: I have 5 cats and not one of those little motherfuckers ever answer me. And they do have official names which I do use. They just don't give a shit. They respond to the whiskas bag and have been confused by packages that crinckle in the same way.
posted by mokeydraws at 8:26 AM on June 10, 2009

One of my cats knows his name, to the point of coming when he's called. The other has no clue. The first cat's name has always been the same, but we've changed the second cat's name three times. Make of that what you like.
posted by desjardins at 8:49 AM on June 10, 2009

"The words I'm saying now
mean nothing more than 'meow'
to an animal."

-They Might Be Giants
posted by coolguymichael at 12:08 PM on June 10, 2009

My newest cat (about 6 or 7 years old) was a stray that the shelter named Keaton, and his foster mom named Marco. Who the hell knows what he was called before that. I call him Mr. Furley most of the time, but sometimes The Yeti, Robert Goulet, Schnieder, Schmitler, and Marcel Proust (he remains in bed most of the day and has a moustache). Sometimes I get a little coo if I call him 'Josef', but otherwise nothin'. He only gives a shit about food, the bathtub faucet, and belly rubs.
posted by medeine at 12:15 PM on June 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Our one year old cat answers to his name and nicknames with same studied indifference. Whether we call him his full name Ticky Mingus, Tickles, Ticks, Bamse, Him, Monsieur or Panther (he's black), he'll only come if he pleases. He usually pleases when he wants something or in response to the crinkling of a packet of treats.

He will however prick up his ears and deign to look at us if we use The Tone. He has yet to show signs of confusion, in fact his decided attacks on my kneecaps show signs of deliberation and cunning. Like coriolisdave, I expect to be deemed surplus to requirements once he develops opposable thumbs.
posted by arcticseal at 1:11 PM on June 10, 2009

We call our cats all kinds of things. Sometimes they come to us, sometimes they don't, but I am skeptical that that has anything to do with the babble that comes out of our mouths.
posted by dubitable at 4:55 PM on June 10, 2009

Our cat, Boo, answers to Boo, Boo Boo, Boobles and Boo-OO-ooooo. And so do the two stray cats that come and mooch from his bowl on the porch.
posted by peagood at 7:33 PM on June 11, 2009

Sorry - that is to say, no, she probably doesn't care as long as you don't call her "late to supper".
posted by peagood at 7:35 PM on June 11, 2009

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