Cats ‘mentally map’ owner’s location using their voice

Cats have nine lives and they spend every one of them watching you.

A new study has revealed that cats have an uncanny ability to track their humans’ movements, in their minds, even while out of sight using socio-spatial cognition.

Researchers say the study challenges the notion that dogs are more interested in their owners’ whereabouts than cats.

“It is generally believed that cats are not as interested in their owners as dogs are, but it turns out that they were mentally representing the invisible presence of their owners,” said Saho Takagi, doctoral student at the University of Kyoto and first author of the study.

“Cats spend most of their time sleeping, and people often think that it’s good that cats just sleep,” Takagi told CNN. “But cats … may be thinking about many things.”

The report described how cats draw “mental maps” that lead them to their owner, based just on their hyper-sensitive hearing abilities.

The study looked at how cats track their humans without visual cues, both in the familiar home setting as well as a cat cafe, and using only recorded clips of their owners’ voices.

During the experiment, the speakers would on occasion be placed in different locations, giving the impression that the voice had instantly jumped from one room to another. Alternatively, they were also made to follow unfamiliar voices as well as random electronic sounds, neither of which piqued their interest quite like their owners’ voice could.

diagram of cat experiment
Cats were able to follow a familiar voice from any location, even unfamiliar ones.

Researchers found the cats appeared genuinely surprised when their owners seemed to “transport” from one place to another — indicating that cats could see in their mind’s eye the exact location from which the sound came.

This sort of thinking indicates “complex” cognitive abilities, which has been observed in other animals, including primates, according to their study, which currently awaits peer-review prior to publication in the open-access journal PLOS One.

Previous studies have shown that cats can distinguish between voices they know and voices they don’t know, and that they can remember and locate hidden objects. Thus, “it seems plausible that cats should be able to mentally map others’ locations based on vocalizations,” the authors wrote.

“This is an ability that is the basis of creativity and imagination,” Takagi said. “Cats are thought to have a more profound mind than is thought.”