Miss Maxine’s Identity Crisis
January 24, 2021 3:44 PM   Subscribe

We got our cat from the Humane Society on Dec. 21. We named her “Maxine”, but she doesn’t recognize her name or any words yet. Are there any tricks to helping a cat learn her name? Or do you have an estimate on how long it might take?

Maxine is about 3 years old. She was a stray. Someone had been feeding her for a while, and called her “Brownie Swirl,” of all things. The shelter decided her name was “Geneva”, but the staff member who handled her while we were there just called her “Kitty.”

She is not food motivated whatsoever. She does love to be petted and cuddled. She was initially very skittish. She has been gradually coming out of hiding. She now spends a good bit of time with us.

We call her “Maxine” often, especially when we are giving her attention. We occasionally call her other things, such as “Kitty”, “Jellybean,” or “the divine Miss M.” She doesn’t seem to differentiate any words, such as “catnip”, “brush,” etc.

Do you have any advice?
posted by furtheryet to Pets & Animals (24 answers total)
You'll find that cats rarely respond to their name even when you know they know it... I would just call her what you'd like, try to stick to one that seems to perk her up slightly more than others - and if you're set on Maxine, I would probably try using "Maxie" - and make your voice go higher on the last syllable. The "ee" sound at the end being higher will often peak the interest of a feline, if only because it could be a bird or a mouse or other thing that could be interesting. Eventually, she'll realize that you're speaking to her - whatever name you might be using - by how it is spoken, and the way that you interact and show her affection. It's the bond you create that's the most important, and it seems like you are already doing a great job of bringing her out of her shell!
posted by itsflyable at 3:49 PM on January 24, 2021 [7 favorites]

Not sure how much cat experience you have, but in mine, cats respond when they want to, and not at all if they don't, and each one is radically different from all the other ones.
We also adopted a 3 year old last year, and also changed her name, she's come around slowly as well.
Sounds like you're doing a great job!
posted by signal at 3:52 PM on January 24, 2021 [6 favorites]

It sounds like you're more accustomed to dogs.

My cat, who doesn't even like canned food, will perk up if I ever happen to open a pop-top can. "Look, sweetie, it's tomatoes," I tell her, and she sniffs at them and looks unimpressed.

I do have a little chk-chk-chk sound I'll make to call her, and sometimes she'll even deign to respond, but it isn't her name. In a sense, she doesn't have a name: while the person who originally rescued her gave the vet a name, I don't think it suits her, but I haven't any reason to call her anything but Madam or Puss. It makes no difference to her.

In other words, I don't think this is a simple problem. The cat will come when she likes.
posted by zadcat at 4:04 PM on January 24, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Agreed that cats only respond when they like to whatever they like.

That being said, my two cats respond surprisingly reliably to distinct calls that my husband and I perform for them that are based on mimicking their vocalizations.

One cat is very chirpy, so responds to a chirping pattern. The other one is a yowler, so we try to match his general tone of perpetual angst.
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 4:11 PM on January 24, 2021 [17 favorites]

Yeah, my life-long experience with cats is they will respond if they want to. And chances are if you want them to respond, they take that as a clue that they probably don't. My cats, if they are so inclined, are really only react to tone of voice - "Zulu, come here you goof" in a sweet, nice tone is interpreted by her in exactly the same way as "You adorable dumbass, come here". Her name is just one of the weird noises the stupid human makes in a long list of noise we make, but shes learned that particular tone usually means head scritches and tummy rubs. So if she's up for that, she responds.
posted by cgg at 4:15 PM on January 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

Another one for 'cats will respond when it benefits them and that's it'. My one cat will. not. stop. screaming at the front door no matter what I do, neither of them respond to their names or any variations thereof or basically anything I might try to summon them, but when I started giving out treats so that one of them could get his pill? They learned what shaking the pill bottle meant in about two days flat. I think there's been some studies that cats are absolutely intelligent enough to learn words they just...don't give a shit. (Sometimes you get a super dog-like cat who will learn to play fetch or whatever, but that's on an individual personality basis.)
posted by kalimac at 4:45 PM on January 24, 2021 [9 favorites]

Agreed, cats care are less about their name and respond more to intonation. They are also good at recognizing patterns. I had outdoor cats as a kid, and they quickly learned that the sound of the food can shaking meant it was dinner time. I do have one cat now who perks up and/or comes whenever he hears his name, but this hasn't been the case for most cats I've had. In terms of bonding, my other cat is a chirper, and seems to enjoy it when we chirp back at him when he greets us way.
posted by coffeecat at 4:55 PM on January 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

We've had a couple of cats that knew their names enough to look at us when we used them, and would also come when called, especially Julia the Best Cat Ever, but she was super human-focussed, so that might be the reason - we had her very young and she hated all other cats and loved humans, so chose to interact with us I think. She also taught herself to fetch and then taught us ... It's certainly a tone thing as well. Higher pitched and cheerful.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 5:01 PM on January 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: We used to see what Sadie would respond to if we called various nouns from the other side of the house, and honestly, as long as it was yelled in the same tone that we usually yelled "Sadie," she come running. I used to get home from work and yell "Asparagus!" and hear her jumping out of the closet to come say hello. I'd be very impressed if your cat recognized her name.
posted by ChuraChura at 5:11 PM on January 24, 2021 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Aww, she's such a Maxine. But yeah, she may never bother to acknowledge that.

If you want to explore how to get her to respond, you could look into clicker training. Many cats respond well to training, but the best approach is different from training other animals like dogs. I found The Trainable Cat interesting. We've been working with Maggie to lift up one paw at the command "paw," but I don't think the verbal command would work without consistent intonation and body language. (Also, now we often find her sitting in front of the cupboard where the treats are stored, with one paw up for minutes at a time, waiting for someone to notice and reward her.)
posted by doift at 5:20 PM on January 24, 2021 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Ours all KNOW their names... whether or not they deign to respond with so much as an ear twitch is another matter entirely. I too would recommend the ee sound, higher pitched, at the end, when you're happy with her... and her full name, nice and firm, when you're not.

Think toddler. And then remember that a cat is a cross between a toddler, a teen, and a grumpy old man.

And you might consider trying the Temptations cat treats in catnip flavor. Those are the only thing that reliably gets a reaction from our three jaded cats, one of which really is not at all food motivated, so she totally surprised us by loving them.
posted by stormyteal at 5:20 PM on January 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: (Maxine looks SO MUCH like Sadie, you might try calling her Asparagus just for fun!)
posted by ChuraChura at 5:32 PM on January 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

I don't know whether they know their names as names, or just as a very important signal, but I always teach my cats to come when called. It's a fun game: I call their name, they come, they get a treat. Eventually they figure out the connection. Even a pet chicken will learn to come when called.
posted by chromium at 5:53 PM on January 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

I've got cats 3,4,5 and 6 knocking around the house right now, and #6 is the first one to show any particular interest in his name - he's preternaturally people oriented, and a bit too smart for his own. I wager most of the others know their names in some sense, but it's not particularly pressing for any of us.
posted by wotsac at 7:04 PM on January 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

My dudes are very food motivated, so I taught them to respond to a particular whistle by whistling it when I made their food, and again when I put their food bowls down. Now they'll usually come from anywhere if I whistle. They do know their names but don't respond other than looking up. They learned sit by watching the dog get treats. This is all to say that cats are trainable to some degree if you can find a food that motivates them, and you may get Maxine to respond to her name.

Oliver and Rufus particularly love freeze dried minnows.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:16 PM on January 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: i find cats do respond to the sounds that makes up their names, and the cleverer ones would even recognise the syllables. that sing-song tone does help, if only because you're less likely to use that tone for other times. personality will determine how they acknowledge the call outside of mealtimes however - i got those who are emotion-oriented to me and would come when i call regardless. even when not, i know for a fact she knows her name, because her ears or tail will twitch in response. the younger one i have is having a bit more difficulty. in part is the intelligence/aptitude level, but also because cats develop individual communication styles for non-feline methods, so what works for one doesn't immediately work for the other, especially when they're spaced years apart, so they weren't habituated at the same pace. i'm trying to remember this myself, because the older sister has great aptitude in following my physical gestures, and so we have a combination of sign and verbal languages to communicate.

what does help is associating that name with pets, meals, treats in the beginning, so at least they know that's a sound for attention. over time, as you expand your use and/or they recognise the use in other times, they'll know which sounds are their name sounds. but if they love/trust you, honestly, they would recognise your voice, and combined with your example in regular habits, they'll know when to look out for your call for a start, and later just your voice will be a sufficient cue to pay attention and to come when needed (well, for a feline definition of 'coming to me pronto').
posted by cendawanita at 10:20 PM on January 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

There are currently an unreasonable number of cats living in my house. They're sweethearts and love attention, but only one of them, Bella, has ever really learned her own name, or at least responds to it reliably. She also responds, and even more strongly, when I make "kissy noises" at her, and will usually meow back at me when I do it. Which is certainly helpful when I'm trying to find her if she's hiding somewhere! I agree with others saying cats mostly don't seem to distinguish words quite as well as, say, dogs do, and it's usually more about the intonation. But sometimes non-speech sounds (like tongue clicks or lip smooches) can be effective, so in addition to just talking to her a lot, you can try seeing if she responds well to those.
posted by biogeo at 11:49 PM on January 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

When we adopted our cat, we knew he was going to be an outdoor cat and were a it paranoid about the advice from Cat Protection for letting them out. What I did was every time we fed him I would make a clicking sound at him. When we finally let him out he was pretty good about responding to the clicks to run to us. Over time he learned to ignore me of course, since he's a cat, but by then he knew where he was.
posted by biffa at 12:55 AM on January 25, 2021 [3 favorites]

Our praise and affection-motivated cat, Rupert, knows his name well and always acknowledges its use. However, when he is exploring the back yard, he chooses whether to come when Mr. Carmicha calls, but always heeds me, even when he knows he is being summoned so I can lock him in for the night. We don't know why. Sometimes he will respond with a very specific murp that means “I hear you, but I’m busy and I’ll be there shortly.” It’s so reliable that I can go back inside and tell people that Rupert is on his way home. Within 3 or 4 minutes he comes bombing through his kitty door.
posted by carmicha at 6:34 AM on January 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

My two cats don't know their names, but they do reliably recognize "snack!" spoken in an excited, upward rising tone of voice and my version of the "brrrreeeeep!" cat vocalization (they notice it but don't necessarily come to me). They also recognize the sound of a knife on a wooden cutting board (they love avocado), the sound of the laptop being closed (as it sometimes precedes meal times), and the sound of the small plates we used to use as their food plates (it's been over a year and they still come running if I accidentally use one of those plates).
posted by spamandkimchi at 7:46 AM on January 25, 2021

I've had good luck teaching cats their names by saying them a lot while feeding them and giving them treats. I also casually say their names when I come across them and give them a pet in passing, but I think the food is the reason that I almost always get some kind of reaction when saying the name -- they know, if nothing else, that that sound means they're likely to get something. That doesn't mean they necessarily come to me or act excited, but I always get at least a look (a look I do not get if I say something else), and from a cat that's a respectable concession. They respond more readily to me than to my husband; I don't know if it's because I have a higher voice or because I've worked with them more on my saying their name being associated with something they want.

Things like coming when called do depend heavily on the personality of the cat. I've had some that would come from a different floor of the house if I simply said their name loudly; more than would come for "here, kitty, kitty," usually at mealtime; and some that I cannot summon except by crinkling the treat bag.
posted by kite at 10:49 AM on January 25, 2021

Best answer: My old man cat, Buckley, only answered to the name Fizgig or Fiz which was the name of his old man cat friend. Even after Fiz passed, Buckley would answer to his name. Cause that was the name that was yelled when wet food was given. The new cat, he does not answer to anything. Not Finn, not Kevin (his foster name), not Little Dude, not Turd, not anything. He does, on the other hand, come running to the mouth clicks I make to let him and the dog know that food is pending. Just make a consistent sound when you feed her and she'll sort out what she thinks her name is.
posted by teleri025 at 10:49 AM on January 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: What wonderful answers.

I've had cats for more than 40 years. But this is the first one I haven't gotten any response from with any sound I make, not names, not other words, not mouth clicks. I do recognize they each have their own personality. And cats can be very independent.

You've given me lots of good ideas and tips. I'll try them all.

Cats are wonderful, aren't they?
posted by furtheryet at 5:49 PM on January 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

My little dude is not particularly food motivated-- but he is a goofy little hunter. He loves to watch birds and lizards through the window, and to 'hunt' pens and balls of paper.

He only intermittently responds to his name. Calling out in a ultra cheery sing-song voice "heeey buddy! What's this?!" works 99% of the time, because he know it means a bird is outside, or I've got a new toy for him.
posted by Orrorin at 2:32 PM on January 31, 2021

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