How Do Cats Recognize Their Owners

How Do Cats Recognize Their Owners

by Scritch

While cats may not appear to be affectionate creatures, these sensible pets have definitely claimed a spot in the hearts of their pet parents, especially when their “masters” tend to their needs. 

Cats are a smart species. While dogs have been labelled as man’s best friend due to the loyalty they show their pet parent, this is only possible due to the dog’s ability to identify their owner through their different senses. Dogs are able to spot their owners amidst a crowd, spot their scent from a distance, and identify their voice. 

Cat parents, on the other hand, would definitely point out that cats are much smarter, more sensitive creatures when compared to dogs. While we won’t be able to give a standardized IQ test to prove this (because why would you?!), cats are definitely observant creatures.

You’ll notice your kitty staring at you for prolonged periods of time. When they do stare at you, are they just mindlessly staring into space, thinking about their next meal or when they should take their next nap? Or are they studying your features, your voice, your scent? 

Pushing aside those moments when your cat ignores you, think about how they react when you get home from a long and tiring day. Does their behavior change when you are present? How about when there are strangers in your house; do they react differently to strangers? 

Cats are often territorial creatures and do not display friendly or welcoming gestures when someone they don’t know enters into their surroundings. Whether it is another cat, another human or any other type of creature, you’ll notice your cat’s ears stretching back, their eyes contracting so they can focus in on the new stranger, and their whiskers lifting up as they try to take in the smell of the intruder. 

These reactions can only mean that your cat can identify between a friend and stranger but, more specifically, how do they recognize you as their owner

Do They See You?

When asking whether cats have a better sense of sight compared to humans, this would lead to a debate on what “better” necessarily means. Comparing human vision to cat vision would be similar to comparing an Android phone to an iPhone. They have different features. Cats are crepuscular creatures, meaning that they are more active at dawn or dusk. Thus, they have developed better night vision. 

Their eyes have up to 8 times more rod cells than the human eye, enabling them to see better in lower lights. The elliptical shape of your cat’s eye coupled with its larger cornea and a reflective tissue layer known as the tapetum allow it to gather more light as well. 

On the other hand, cats have a weaker sense of color, as humans have more cone cells in their eyes. Cone cells are responsible for differentiating colors within light. With lesser cone cells, cat vision is also what we would call “lower resolution”, as cats need to be closer to objects in order to see them clearly. This nearsightedness in cats can explain why they are not so adept at identifying humans within a crowd, especially when their human is more than 20 feet away. 

While cat vision may not be the same as our way of seeing the world, their sense of sight is adapted to what they need to be able to see. However, studies have shown that facial recognition in cats, though technically not low, is lower when they are tasked to identify a familiar human compared to when they point out a familiar cat. 

Researchers at the University of Texas cross examined several cats that were trained to select between a picture of a stranger and their handler. About 50.8% of cats were not able to identify the “familiar” human. 

When tested the same way, this time with pictures of a familiar cat and a strange cat, and then with pictures of a familiar surrounding and a new one, cats showed up to 90% accuracy in identifying the familiar cat, and an 85.8% success rate in identifying the familiar surrounding. 

This just shows that, while cats may be able to compare and contrast objects and other animals with their eyesight, they do not rely on this sense to differentiate between humans.

Do They Hear You?

Cats have a heightened sense of hearing compared to humans. While we can hear the same lower limit of the sound frequency (20Hz), cats are adapted to hear a high limit of up to 64,000 Hz, whereas humans are only capable of up to a third of that frequency. 

The external ear of the cat is much more capable of amplifying sounds as it is larger, cone shaped and can be erect. More muscles around the ear enable cats to move it towards the source of the sound. However, better hearing would not necessarily result in better voice recognition.

Studies have shown that cats are able to identify their owner’s voice. However, it isn’t specifically the word that your cat recognizes but, instead, the tone in which you say it. 

Repetitive use of vocal tones would be insignificant, unless a cat is able to relate that to an action or, in this case, a consequence. For example, every time you call your cat’s name and give them food, they would relate their name to meal times. 

This is also observable when a stranger calls out your cat’s name. When this happens, your cat may either ignore them or respond differently from when you call them. This is because the cat is unfamiliar with the tones in which the word was said. They may also simply be tuning out the sound, as they do not need anything in that moment. 

The question shouldn’t be whether your cat can hear you, because, with their highly evolved sense of hearing, we can definitely assure you that they can and that they can also identify familiar sounds. 

Instead, we should ask whether your cat is actually listening, or is just choosing to ignore you. 

Do They Smell You?

Cats have a significantly heightened sense of smell compared to humans and, according to some researchers, possibly even to dogs! A cat’s sense of smell is up to 14 times greater than a regular person. This is owed to the 200 million odor-receptive cells in their noses. 

Humans only have 2% or 5 million of these cells. Furthermore, they also have a specialized scent organ at the roof of their mouth known as the vomeronasal organ, that helps them pick up even more scents. These adaptations have led researchers to believe that cats have a greater ability to identify scents, even in comparison to canines. 

Some researchers have even identified that a lack of variety of different smells in a cat’s environment could be one factor that induces stress and anxiety. Kitties enjoy having various smells in their area, especially familiar scents around the house. 

Cat behaviors, such as rubbing, kneading, and bunting are some of the ways that cats are able to get their scent on their humans. These actions, when related to the cat’s heightened sense of smell, would point out that your kitty may be dependent on your scent to identify you.

Do They Remember You?

Lastly, it would be unfair to point out that cat parents applaud their cats for being on the smart end of the pet spectrum. They are capable of remembering behavioral patterns and can discern between the person responsible for giving them food, the person who gives them baths, plays with them and among other things, gives the best tummy rubs. 

Your cat is able to identify the different people in your home and mentally classify them based on how they act and what they do. While dogs may still remain anxious when their owners leave the house every morning to go to work, cats are better adapted as they also understand that, at the end of the day, their owners come back home just in time for dinner - their dinner that is. 

This ability to remember behavior patterns in other creatures shows us that cats can be witty little creatures. And it personally enlightens me on why cat owners, though they call their cats “pets”, are not necessarily the “masters” in this human-cat relationship.

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