Cats form strong, close bonds with certain people. However, unlike many other domesticated animals, they don’t differentiate between us with their eyesight.
Cats can’t recognize human faces. Cats are long-sighted because of their need to hunt and scope out far-away environments. This means they view our faces as a blur. They also don’t get close enough to our faces to memorize them. Cats recognize humans through our unique scent and by the sound of our voices.
Much of what we understand about cats comes from human anecdotes, but there are things we know through science-backed research that proves cats struggle to see human faces clearly through sight alone.
Do Cats Recognize People’s Faces?
Cats form strong bonds with their owners and can tell humans apart. They also become attached to certain people, choosing them as their favorites by showing them lots of affection and spending more time with them than anyone else. However, it might surprise you to know that cats don’t recognize their owners through sight, at least not without their other senses to help.
According to a study by The Journal of Vision, 12 cats were tested to see if they recognized their owners. Researchers discovered that only 54% of the cats studied could determine their owners by their faces alone. In most cases, human faces don’t register with them. It may also be a case that they don’t care what we look like.
Interestingly, during the same study, cats recognized other feline faces around 85% of the time, suggesting they remember other cats’ faces far more accurately than humans. One reason for this is because cats have to be wary of each other due to negative experiences, grudges, or to defend their territory. People pose less of a threat.
Another leading theory why cats don’t recognize human faces is because they see us as large, clumsy cats. When cats greet humans, they rub up against them and lift their tails. This is the same way they greet other felines. Many cats also knead their owners with their paws, which is what kittens do to their mothers. However, because owners aren’t aggressive towards their pets like other cats, they accept our companionship regardless.
Why Can’t Cats Recognize Human Faces?
Cats can’t recognize human faces very well, but there are multiple reasons for this. Human faces look the same to cats. We have similar features, which means cats can’t distinguish between us, even though we all look different.
Vision Research also explains how cats can’t decipher color as well as humans can. That’s because they only have three vision cones in their retina. Even though we have different skin tones and shades, cats can’t tell us apart by our pigmentation. Cats are also long-sighted, which is essential for hunting and their overall survival. Wild cats scope out areas from afar to determine whether they’re safe to enter. A cat’s vision is blurry close-up.
This means that cats can’t see distinctive features, including tattoos and facial hair, in the same way as we can. Not only that, but because cats are far lower to the ground than humans, they don’t get close enough to our faces for long enough to memorize them.
Overall, all of these factors make it impossible for cats to recognize human faces. Instead, they rely on their other senses to determine who we are.
Do Cats Recognize Human Facial Expressions?
As mentioned, cats are long-sighted, which means they’re unable to see facial expressions clearly. Not only that, but even if they could see them, it’s highly unlikely they would understand what our facial expressions mean without another cue, such as sound and body language.
Interestingly, the journal Animals found that cats can determine facial expressions based on the sounds they hear. Researchers recorded the sounds of a man and a woman laughing and growling before taking pictures of them demonstrating a happy human face and an angry human face. Ten cats were tested in their homes during the study – each one facing a screen while sitting on their owner’s lap.
When researchers played the human growling sound, they showed a picture of the angry face – and vice versa. It was discovered that the cats looked at the faces that matched the sounds for much longer, indicating that they recognized the human facial expression that went with the sound.
Therefore, if you accompany animated facial expressions with specific sounds when communicating with your cat, it may be able to understand them.
Can Cats Tell Humans Apart?
We’ve determined that cats can’t tell humans apart by looking at their faces. However, instead of facial recognition, cats use alternative cues to tell us apart. Cats have powerful noses and ears, so they can distinguish between humans through the following ways:
Animal Cognition explains how cats recognize their owners’ voices. When tested, researchers found that cats responded to their owners’ voices 75% of the time, ignoring the voices of strangers.
This ability is predominantly due to their experiences during kittenhood. According to Developmental Psychobiology, acoustic communication plays an integral part in mother-kitten recognition. Researchers have learned that kittens respond more strongly to the chirps of their own mothers than those of stranger cats. These chirps warn kittens of dangers or imminent feeding, so they’re essential for survival.
As soon as the kittens become older and leave their mothers, their owners adopt the role. Your cat will respond to your voice and unique sounds because it trusts you to keep it safe from harm while providing food, water, and shelter.
As a result, cats also attempt to mimic their owners’ voices, copying the tones and melody patterns to get their attention. Their speech comes out as a meow rather than words because of their uniquely shaped vocal cords.
That being said, cats can’t distinguish between humans through their voices in a crowd. The volume will be too distorted for your pet to hear and recognize you.
Scent is one of the main ways that cats use to recognize humans and tell them apart. That’s because they have between 45 to 80 million scent receptors in their nose, which is 14 times more sensitive than ours (according to VCA Hospitals). Scent is vital to their daily life as it’s how they learn more about their environment.
Even though we can’t smell our own pheromones (or even those of other humans), cats can by picking up our skin’s aroma through their powerful noses. These chemicals are like a fingerprint to cats and are how they distinguish between people.
Cats also get used to certain perfumes and shampoos, associating them with your scent. If you change the products you use, your cat will notice and may display strange behaviors, for example:
- Tongue lolling
- Mouth held open
- Upper lip curled
While these expressions look strange, they’re part of the flehmen response. Cats have a vomeronasal organ called the Jacobson’s organ at the roof of their mouths. It essentially allows them to “taste” the air and identify smells we can’t determine and commit them to memory. Cats will memorize the smells of their owners and use them to tell humans apart. That’s also why they make these odd expressions.
Cats also mark their owners with their scent to claim ownership and provide instant recognition. This is essential because cats don’t recognize humans by sight, as determined, and need to learn the sound of their owners’ voices before they trust them. Cats leave their scents on people by rubbing their head or paws on them. That’s because their scent glands are located in their:
By doing this, they leave their scent behind. This is one way they distinguish between their owners and strangers. You’ll notice that when your cat first acknowledges you after an absence, it’ll check you for its familiar scent. Once it picks it up, it’ll determine that you’re not a threat and proceed to interact with you.
If it sniffs an unfamiliar person and can’t identify the scent, it’ll likely walk or run away. Speaking to your cat while it sniffs you will also help it learn your voice. Try not to use high-pitched sing-song tones, as this doesn’t accurately represent your unique sound.
Don’t be disheartened by the fact that your cat doesn’t recognize you by your appearance. It still knows who you are through the sound of your voice and your unique scent. Through these methods, your cat will be able to form an attachment to you, enabling you to forge a strong and meaningful connection that strangers can’t have with your pet.