Sunday, June 1, 2014

A Cat by Any Other Name

One of my cats has decided to change her name. We are not exactly sure when she did this but apparently it is a done deal and she will only respond to her new name. To make matters a little more weird, the name she has chosen is the name of one of our other cats.

Now, it could be said that the idea of a cat responding to any name is an unusual one. After all we are talking about a cat, a creature who lives to ignore humans. If you are willing to downgrade the definition of response to 'any indication the cat has heard you' you will immediately increase the 'response' rate. We consider it a response if they meow back, turn their head or perhaps even turn one ear. These are cats. We are keeping our expectations low.

We are cat veterans in that we have had many, many cats through the years. Unfortunately often in high numbers ranging from nine at a time to a blissfully too short period when we had two. The standard exit age point of these cats it typically 16 – 18 years old where they shuffle off over the rainbow bridge to kitty nirvana. What this means is that in the last 20 years we have had 19 cats and currently we are down to four, our lowest number in years. I add this information just so that you will know that we are not cat amateurs.

the lovely calico Sunny
Sunny... if you say it just right.
We used to have a cat called Sunny. She was a mostly white with orange and black splotched calico. When you would call her name she would respond with a meow back. Now in other ways, Sunny was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but her call back response was nearly mensa quality in regards to other cats. It was unfortunately a little ruined by the fact she must have had some siamese in her background because her 'meow' came out more like a 'meaaaack', but hey at least she answered. Just not always.

Hellbound the movie with Chuck Norris
You too could learn to talk like Prosatanos...
If you called her name in a friendly fashion with a slight uplift in the first syllable she would answer without hesitation. Now she would never come toward you, in fact she would resolutely keep her back turned toward you, but she would answer you. However if you were to call her name in a less than friendly fashion, such as, oh, I don't know, perhaps the deep and gravelly voice of a character from a horror movie called Hellbound, the character known as Prosatanos, she would have a different response. We had an entertaining time one evening learning this with Sunny. She was in the living room with us and as she often would do she sat with her back turned to us. Every time my husband said her name in the upbeat Disney princess way, Sunny would answer back. Every time he said her name in the Prosatanos voice (one he could mimic perfectly) she was silent, but you could tell in the slight twitch of her ears she heard it. Nope, she was not about to talk to Prosatanos – no way.

What is in a name? That is especially a tricky question when applied to a pet instead of a human. Sunny knew her name. She even knew her name when it was said in way she didn't like. It has been my experience that most cats, given enough attention and time will learn the names we give them and show some sort of response when they are called. Do they attach any special meaning to their names? Do they have their own 'cat' name that we are just too human to understand?

Perhaps just as importantly do we attach any special meaning to our cats' names? I tend to assign a cat a name based on first impressions and often on physical or personality characteristics. It might be said that I don't give it a lot of thought, but to be fair, in my life time I have had to come up with over 50 unique cat names for all the various felines I have allowed into my life. I may not give it too much conscious thought, but I never re-use a name. Imagine having 50 kids. After a while you too would employ an American Indian like child naming methodology. You must admit, “Bites with Sharp Teeth” has a sort of catchy ring to it.

Mini the cat
Bino, Mini's mom cat
Mini's mom "Bino"
So, back to the cat in question today. Her original name was Mini because she was a miniature version of her mother. It had all of the qualities that are valuable in a cat name. It was short. It had the 'e' sound on the end which they seem to like. You could draw out the last syllable when calling her which seems to add amperage to the cat calling power over distance. You could also say it many times in a row all squinched together: Mini-mini-mini-mini-mini which I learned as a child to call our vast cat hoard with Kitty-kitty-kitty-kitty-kitty, also known as the cat hog call.

Mini used to respond to her name. Now, truth be told of the four cats we have, she is a resolute feral and although she will come near us and sometimes suffer to be petted she is very skitterish, shy and aloof on her best days. You make the wrong noise, the wrong sound or try and put flea preventive on her and she is gone. Yet, she would not only come to her name she would also respond with a sweet little 'meyah' when you said her name. She also seemed to like to hear her name. My husband and I always give the most gentle and delightful and sing-song lilting to her name since unlike her three siblings she is so shy and reluctant.

About three weeks ago she stopped responding to her name. Sometimes for reasons we don't know she seems to go more feral. We feed our foursome in an enclosed front door porch that they can enter and exit at will. Sometimes she is there and talking and allowing us to pet her. Some weeks she won't even come on the porch if we are there. Sometimes she won't come on the porch until the other cats leave. So, Mini not responding to her name has happened before. This time though my husband noticed something.

The original Sandy.  You can tell by her
left ear she is listening to her name being called.
He was outside the porch and saw Mini with her back turned to him on our sidewalk. He called Mini's name several times and she did not even twitch an ear. He then called for our other cat, Sandy. Mini turned her head toward him and meowed. He called her name and she turned her back on him. He called Sandy and she turned her head and meowed again. In the next few days he found that when he fed the cats, if he kept saying Sandy's name, Mini would stay on the porch and eat heartily. If he said 'Mini' she would leave the porch.

So, apparently we now have two cats named Sandy. I am going to experiment today and see if she will respond to something similar like Mandy because I don't want the original Sandy to start getting some complex because another cat stole her name. If that doesn't work I will see if I can call her Sandi so at least we can spell them differently. Maybe I can get the original Sandy to change her name to something else.

I may have to get some additional guidance:

the cat who cried for help
Kitty psychology anyone?

psycho kitty
"Solve" crazy behavior?
what is my cat thinking
Do I really want to know?