The Naming of Cats

Here’s a revised, updated, human-to-human version of an article previously published in the “animal interview” form.

Question: How do Cat Sanctuary cats get their names?

Answer: Sometimes from their colors. Sometimes from the way they behave.

A few cats’ names have been inspired by books. Liza, a feral orange female, was so scared of me at first that she reminded me of the story in Lazy Liza Lizard with the song about the “silly yellow wild cat.” The combination of Iris, Irene, and Ivy came from Piers Anthony’s Xanth comedy series.

Some cats were named in combinations. There was a blue-gray kitten called Grayce, and later her pale orange half-brother was Paley. Polly was polychromatic; her granddaughter, who was both polychromatic and polydactylous, was Candice. Princess Anne, the elder sibling, and Mitchellville, the younger smaller sibling who quickly grew bigger, were named after two towns in Maryland that developed in a similar pattern. I never found out the real name of a frequent visitor who became a resident after his human died, but since he first came to visit Graybelle I called him Graybeau.

The Cat Sanctuary was really founded by a cat called Magic who had a penchant for adopting kittens. Magic was a present from a NASCAR promoter, and several of her family had NASCAR-theme names: Black Magic, Black Velvet, Kulwicki, et al. NASCAR names were reserved for kittens with very loud purr “motors”—Magic was one, and raised several.

Some Cat Sanctuary cats were named by other people. I didn’t think of “Graybelle,” although I like it. Harley and Davidson were “Manx One” and “Manx Two” while growing up at the Cat Sanctuary—it wasn’t as if they were the sort of cats who came when called.

Q: Do cats care what they’re called?

A: Some of them really seem to care. For Minnie, a tiny kitten who grew up to be a big fat cat, I think the transition had to do with the trauma of being spayed. As a kitten she answered to “Minnie Mouse” or “Bare Minimum.” Around the time she was spayed, names suggesting small size started to seem ridiculous, so I started calling her plain Minnie. She never answered to “Minnie.” She became wary of being called.

Mogwai was a funny-looking kitten. For about the first year of her life her hind legs were too long for the rest of her, making her clumsy, and for about a week after running a fever her hind legs stopped working for her at all. The orange and black patches on her face could look ridiculous, or sinister, depending on people’s point of view I suppose. She was a long, skinny kitten with huge ears. She really did remind me of the small, furry stage of the monsters in Gremlins. Hence her name. She was a very sensitive Listening Cat, and I think she sensed that I’d considered alternatives like Gremlin, Goblin, Funny Face. As a young kitten she seemed to know that “Mogwai” meant her, but she made a point of waiting for me to say something like “pretty kitty.”

Of course most cats don’t listen to humans enough to know that they have names. Even when they do consistently answer to their names it’s not always clear whether they’ve absorbed the concept of a specific sound meaning them. Often at the Cat Sanctuary I’ll call the senior cat first, and all the others form the habit of coming when I call the Queen—or in Mac’s case the King. It can take them a while to figure out that they have separate names of their own. They don’t necessarily realize that other humans know their names, either. Magic always responded when other people said her name, but Minnie would hide in the cellar when almost anyone else spoke at all; she liked one volunteer who came here to feed her, but not others.

Cats can also have a hierarchy among themselves. Sometimes one cat will start to answer to a name, and another cat will chastise it, as if to say “My human wouldn’t want to call you.” In order for those two cats to live with each other, the subordinate cat won’t answer to its name or be much of a pet as long as the dominant cat’s about. Some cats even divide up the humans: this one’s yours, that one’s mine.

Q: What guidelines have you learned about naming cats?

A: (1) Give them names that you believe are good names. Some cats do sense what a name means to you. I’m sure Mogwai always understood me to mean “something that’s ugly in a cute, amusing way” by her name. Once a visitor asked whether “Mogwai” was “some sort of devil name,” and Mogwai sank all her claws in through his shirt!

(2) If you want them to learn their names, choose names that don’t sound too much alike. Grayzel and Graymina were the same gray-hazel, pale-tortoiseshell color. I called both of them “Gray” interchangeably. Until Graymina left the Cat Sanctuary I had no idea that Grayzel heard words.

(3) If they’re registered with long, extravagant “official names,” shorten those names to something suitable for calling around the house.

(4) Avoid giving a cat the same name you actually use to call a human. Some humans find this offensive, but even if the human likes it, it confuses the cat.

(5) Call the cat by name when you want to pet or feed it, and just grab it, without calling it, when you want to take it to the vet.

Here’s the non-book-review Morguefile cat: