If you’ve ever pondered whether your pet cat gives a whiskers about your whereabouts, research may have an answer: cats appear to track their owners as they move about the house and are surprised if they turn up somewhere they’re not expecting them.
The finding supports the idea that cats retain a mental representation of their owners, even when they can’t see them; a crucial bridge to higher cognitive processes such as forward planning and imagination.
Cats are notoriously inscrutable creatures. Although previous research has suggested that cats will search in the correct place if food is seen to disappear, and expect to see their owner’s face if they hear their voice, it was unclear how this ability translated into real life. “It is [also] said that cats are not as interested in their owners as dogs are, but we had doubts about this point,” said Dr Saho Takagi at the University of Kyoto, Japan.
To investigate, Takagi and colleagues recorded what happened when 50 domestic cats were individually shut inside a room, and repeatedly heard their owner calling their name from outside, followed by either a stranger’s voice, or that of their owner, coming through a speaker on the opposite side of the room they were inhabiting.
Eight “blinded” human observers watched these recordings and ranked the cats’ level of surprise based on their ear and head movements. Only when their owners’ voices suddenly appeared inside the room – implying that they had somehow teleported there – did the cats appear confused.
“This study shows that cats can mentally map their location based on their owner’s voice,” said Takagi, whose research was published in the journal PLOS One. “[It suggests] that cats have the ability to picture the invisible in their minds. Cats [may] have a more profound mind than is thought.”
However, it’s not entirely surprising that cats possess this ability: “That awareness of movement – tracking things they cannot see – is critical to a cat’s survival,” said Roger Tabor, a biologist, author and presenter of the BBC TV series Cats.
“A lot of what a cat has to interpret in its territory is an awareness of where other cats are. It is also important for hunting: how could a cat catch a field vole moving around beneath the grass if it couldn’t use clues, such as the occasional rustle, to see in its mind’s eye, where they are? A cat’s owner is extremely significant in its life as a source of food and security, so where we are is very important.”
Anita Kelsey, a UK feline behaviourist and author of Let’s Talk About Cats, said: “Cats have a close relationship with us and most feel settled and safe within our company so our human voice would be part of that bond or relationship. When I am dealing with cats that suffer separation anxiety, I usually do not advocate playing the owner’s voice in the home as this can cause anxiety with the cat hearing the voice, but not knowing where their human is.”
Curiously, the cats did not show the same surprise response when the owners’ voices were replaced with cat meows or electronic sounds. Possibly, this is because adult cats do not tend to use voice as their primary means of communication with one other, many may rely on other cues such as scent instead.
“The ‘meow’ that we used in this study is a voice signal that is only emitted to humans, except for kittens,” said Takagi. “Cats may not be able to identify individuals from the ‘meow’ of other individuals.”
• This article was amended on 15 November 2021 to correct the name of the journal that published the research paper.