New study shows how cats track their owners’ movements around the house

Cats appear to track their owners’ movements around the house, a new study has found,…

Cats appear to track their owners’ movements around the house, a new study has found, supporting the idea that cats maintain a mental representation of their owners even when they cannot see them.

That finding suggests cats are capable of higher-level cognitive functions like imagination and planning, researchers at Kyoto University and Sophia University in Japan concluded. Their discovery has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This study shows that cats can mentally map their location based on their owner’s voice,” the study’s lead author, Saho Takagi, told The Guardian. “[It suggests] that cats have the ability to picture the invisible in their minds. Cats [may] have a more profound mind than is thought.”


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Takagi and colleagues documented the reactions of 50 domestic cats when their owners called their names from another room. That was followed by either their owner or a stranger calling their name a second time from a speaker on the opposite side of the room they were inhabiting.

Eight “blind” human participants watched these interactions and ranked the cats’ level of surprise based on their ear and head movements. They found that the cats appeared confused only when the voice of their owner suddenly appeared on the other side of the room.

“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,” the researchers wrote.

Cats are generally thought to be more aloof and uninterested in their owners than dogs, and a 2013 study found that cats do recognize their owners’ voices, but they choose to ignore them.

“We had doubts about this point,” Takagi told The Guardian.

The cats did not show the same surprise when their owners’ voices were replaced with cat meows, possibly because adult cats generally rely on other cues like scent to communicate with each other.

The researchers added that it is not entirely clear whether the cats were surprised by their owners’ detached voices because they appeared to have “teleported” or because they were absent from the location the cat had “mapped” them to be, and further research on this topic is needed.


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