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  • Writer's pictureJen Van de Kieft

Do Cat Names Matter for Adoption?

Updated: Jan 6

We all have our personal choices for cat names. I'm personally turned off by names that are food and objects. I love human names for cats since I feel this better represents them as the complex beings that they are. However, a study looking at length of stays at UK shelters demonstrated that names do not matter as much as a third person narrative description of the cat. I think the study is flawed when it comes to names.

Nicole and Stella, foster kittens
Foster kittens named Tiny Boots and Dusty Mittens were initially overlooked by their adopters. My son changed their names to Nicole and Stella, which the adopters found very attractive.

Animals in the Shelter System

According to the World Animal Foundation, 6.3 million dogs and cats enter the shelter system each year with only 4 million of them finding homes, leaving lots of animals in shelters waiting to be adopted. From what I've seen, shelters are often overwhelmed and may not be considering the best marketing strategies to entice adopters to take home some of the animals that are deemed less adoptable such as black cats, shy cats, and seniors. Kittens and young cats are attractive to adopters.

Euthanasia rates have been decreasing since 2011, but there continues to be 530,000 cats, many of them black cats, euthanized annually, according to the World Animal Foundation. Black cats also spend more time in shelters waiting to be adopted. This is heartbreaking, particularly thinking of our own black cat, Maya, who is the sweetest cat ever and has been such a wonderful companion for our son. Out of our 5 cats, Maya was on his lap throughout the pandemic and I feel such gratitude that we have her in our lives.

Do Names Matter?

Several years ago our family fostered a pair of kittens. They came with kind of silly, but cute names, Tiny Boots and Dusty Mittens. When they first arrived, I planned on calling them Tiny and Dusty, but my son was not having it. He renamed them Stella and Nicole. We sent their new names and a bunch of cute pictures we took of them to Brooklyn Animal Action, the rescue we were fostering them through to post on their website. They were soon adopted. When the potential guardians came to visit, they talked about how much they liked their names. When I mentioned their old names, they had indicated that they had seen those names as they were looking for kittens for the previous month, but had passed over "Tiny Boots" and "Dusty Mittens". In this case, the human names helped get this pair of kittens adopted.

When I volunteered at a local shelter, some of the animals were given great names such as Henry and Venus, and others had object names, which you know I really dislike. One cat was named Apple. A litter of kittens was named after pasta: Fusilli, Spaghetti, Rigatoni and Penne. I find this so unappealing. Though, I may be in the minority here as these food names are increasing in popularity. An article last year in Bon Appetit explained the phenomenon with a focus on dogs named for food claiming that having a dog and naming it after food fills an emotional void with a double dopamine hit (food and a fur child).

Why not give them human names instead? It seemed to make Stella and Nicole more attractive.

What Science Can Tell Us

Researchers studied adoption rates for adult cats in the UK shelter system to determine if cat names made a difference in their length of stay (LOS) at the shelter. They also looked at the description of the cats and whether it made a difference in LOS if the narrative voice was in first or third person.

What they found was that the names did not make a difference (more on this later), but cats who were described in the third person found homes faster compared to cats that were described in the first person. I guess we're not fooling people when we say "I'm Ariel, I like long naps in your lap and watching birds at the window." Adopters preferred something like "Meet Ariel who likes long naps in your lap and loves to watch birds from the window."

Additionally, the study showed that adopters preferred young cats and male cats. Young male cats make up the majority of my caseload for behavior clients and I see very few adult female black cats. Is that because most of the cats in homes are young and male, therefore needing behavior services? Or are adult black female cats perfectly behaved? Based on my 5 cats, Maya is perfect compared to her tabby brother and the other males in our home. When I say perfect, I mean she is an easy cat. She's not particular about anything, with one exception. She will only stay on your lap if you have a fleece blanket. She's obsessed with fleece blankets which is adorable.

Recommendation for future studies

I'm not at all convinced that names don't matter. When this study looked at names, they made it so complicated which is why the study is flawed in this area. The researchers admitted this in their report. They divided names into 8 different categories including Animal names (Tiger, Monkey), Cat names (Kitty, Felix), Food and drink (Peaches, Biscuit), Human names (Bridget, Sophie), Flowers (Daisy, Rose), Plants (Maple, Shamrock), Fictional names (Doby, Katniss), Disney names (Nemo, Elsa), an Other category (Silver, Pretty) and finally and unusual category (Pop, Meep). This is too many categories!!! Even the researchers noted that many names fell into several categories.

In future studies, I would like to see two categories. First, names that are given to living things including plants since I know people named Daisy, Rosemary and Lily. I consider those to be human names. The second category should be non-living things or Objects such as Spaghetti and Biscuit. I personally believe this is what makes a difference. I want an animal who is alive, has emotions, is smart, has complexity. You don't get that from Spaghetti that same way you get that from Stella. This is what I hope future studies look at. We want shelters and rescues to be the most successful as they can be in adopting out adult cats, particularly black female cats like our Maya. Let's give them appealing names with a kick ass third person narrative to reduce not only their length of stay in the shelter but also their risk of being euthanized.

That's me petting Maya, named by my son who also dislikes food names for pets.

This post was original published in 2018 relying on an ASPCA study that I can no longer find which determined cat names did not matter for adoptions rates. I'm still skeptical.

About the author: Jennifer Van de Kieft, CAFTP, FFCP, PNCC is located in Brooklyn, NY. She is certified in feline behavior and pet nutrition. She owns Cat Advocate, a feline behavior consulting company. She provides cat guardians with the strategies, tools and knowledge needed to address their cat's behavior issues. Jennifer provides virtual consultations throughout the United States.

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