According to T S Eliot the naming of cats is “a difficult matter, it isn’t just one of your holiday games.”  Apparently all cats need three different names – and the one we worry about choosing is the first…but least important!  They also need “a name that’s particular, a name that’s peculiar, and more dignified”, not to mention a name that only the cat knows, and apparently spends much of his or her time thinking about.  Hopefully you’ve met Daisy (aka Princess) and Poppy (aka Pointy Tail) already.  We didn’t give the Princess her name, but did decide to rename Pointy Tail – who was “Nellie” when we first met her.

I think naming cats is more for our benefit than for our four-footed friends!  We naturally attribute human characteristics or behaviour to animals, or even objects.  Some see this as a sign of childishness or stupidity, but recent research by Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioural science, says that it’s actually “a natural by-product of the tendency that makes humans uniquely smart.”  Recognising the mind of another human being involves the same psychological processes as recognising a mind in other animals, a god, or even a gadget. It is a reflection of our brain’s greatest ability rather than a sign of our stupidity - so it’s OK (for example) to speak to your car as if it is a human when it “refuses” to start on a cold morning but think of it as fine-tuned metal when it performs perfectly.

Human babies are named before they have much opportunity to display personality, while generally we name our animal companions according to their character, or perhaps the character we want for them.  Apparently more than two syllables or tough pronunciations could result in your cat becoming confused and never learning their name!  These mystical creatures, that Eliot tells us spend time in a rapt contemplation of the thought of their ineffable name, would apparently become hopelessly confused if you decided to call them Marshmallow instead of Mallow, or (God forbid!) Chairman Meow!

I was amused to find that websites devoted to choosing names for cats (yes, they do exist!) suggest selecting a name that the cat will recognise is important – how many cats respond to their human calling “their” name (unless it suits them, of course!)?  Gill has reminded me we did think of renaming Daisy but decided not to “because she answered to it”!  (Daisy, as I’ve previously remarked, is a very vocal cat and would probably happily answer to “Chairman Meow” if she thought there were biscuits on offer!)  “Poppy” somehow felt right in exactly the way “Nellie” just didn’t – so Daisy and Poppy they became.

Evidently some cats’ humans find it difficult to select first names for “their” cats.  For them there are cat name generators!  First you select whether the cat is a “boy” or a “girl” (this can be tricky if you’re not in the know, and one of my previous cats changed suddenly from a boy to a girl when the vet told us, after many months of being certain Sixpence was a he, that SHE was fine!) then you choose the theme or style of name you want – anything from cute or sporty to biblical or movie-related.  If only we’d discovered these websites before, Poppy could have been “Sapphira”, “Desdemona” or perhaps “Sprockets”!

Daisy on the wallDaisy, as I’ve mentioned before, is a calico cat – and there is at least one website devoted to names for these “rare and uniquely beautiful” cats.  It seems we could have chosen “Piper”, “Saffron”, “Sahara”, “Taffy”, “Truffles”, “Kiki”, “Opal” or “Lucy”.  The website also suggests some Egyptian names for calico cats – including “Nefertiti”, which obviously also breaks the two-syllable rule!

Another site makes choosing a cat’s name feel like applying for life assurance – you’re first asked for the cat’s main colour(s), then the pattern type, before asserting whether the cat has white socks (why?) and adjusting sliders to establish how down to earth the cat is, how big and how intellectual (presumably an intellectual cat would fill in the form without human assistance!).  You can then supply three adjectives that suggest the cat’s attitude and personality and can specify what letter the name should begin with.  I tried this one today for Daisy, and it suggested “Mademoiselle Haughtylickle” which pretty well sums her up.

In the end, though, do we have the right to choose names for these amazing, adorable creatures?  If we accept T S Eliot’s view that we are adding to the name the cat already has, surely it’s our duty to select suitable names – but there is an amazing amount of advice around about whether it is OK to change a cat’s name.  The accepted wisdom appears to be that it’s acceptable in the case of kittens and cats that have been abused and rehomed but not for cats that have had a happy life and, perhaps, sadly outlived their human companions.

Does it matter if you name a cat?  Well, a study has found that a cat probably understands when you’re calling its name…but it may choose not to listen!  It seems the cat might not understand that the word is a label for them — just that it is a sound that may predict or precede food, cuddles, attention or something else.  I don’t think that fact will need much profound meditation or rapt contemplation for humans that share their lives with cats.

Andrew Lane

The Very Best Toy for Cats

"Of all the [cat] toys available, none is better designed than the owner himself. A large multipurpose plaything, its parts can be made to move in almost any direction. It comes completely assembled, and it makes a noise when you jump on it."

Stephen Baker