Your Cat Knows Where You Are Even When They Can't See You

Pet cats have been found to "mentally map" the whereabouts of their owners when they are out-of-sight, scientists have found. Researchers found that cats track their owners' movements by creating mental representations linked to vocal signals.

The researchers, led by Saho Takagi from the Department of Psychology at Kyoto University, Japan, conducted a series of experiments on cats, using vocal cues from either their owners or strangers.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, in 2017/2018, there were 58,385,725 pet cats in the U.S., with one in four households having at least one feline friend.

It is generally thought cats are more aloof to their owners compared to dogs. In 2013, research showed that cats do recognize their owners voices, but they choose to ignore it.

In the latest research, published in PLOS One, Takagi and colleagues carried out three experiments to find out whether cats actively track their owners using environmental cues—in this case, their voices.

In the first experiment, cats heard a recording of their owner's voice calling their name five times. After the fifth call, one of two speakers played either a stranger calling the cat's name, or the owner. One speaker was placed outside the room, and the other inside the room, behind the cat. The recordings were played in a variety of combinations.

The cats were found to express the most surprise by far when the recording of the owner's voice came from within the room. In the other two experiments, cats were played vocalizations from other cats, or non-vocal sounds. No correlation was found in terms of surprise at the stimuli.

The findings, the team suggest, indicate that cats were surprised to hear their owners when they knew they were not in the room at that time.

"Results showed that cats were surprised when their owner appeared to be 'teleported' to a new, unexpected location, but they did not react in the same way when tested with non-social stimuli," the researchers wrote. "These results suggest that cats hold a mental representation of the unseen owner and map their owner's location from the owner's voice, showing evidence of socio-spatial cognition."

They said it is unclear whether cats were surprised by the owner's presence because they appeared in an unexpected location—or because they were absent from the expected location the cat had "mapped" them to be. They said further studies will be needed to understand this.

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Stock photo of a cat. Researchers in Japan have found cats track their owner's movements. Getty Images