Cats and humans have a unique relationship. Unlike other domesticated animals, cats do not recognize humans as superiors and masters. In fact, they do not even recognize owners by sight. This has led to an undeserved reputation as an aloof species.
Cats do not recognize owners by looking at them. Human resting faces all look the same to a cat. Instead, cats differentiate between humans by sound and smell. Cats learn to recognize an owner’s voice and will respond accordingly. Regardless of any perfume or cologne, human skin carries a unique scent to a cat.
The idea that cats do not recognize or care for their owners is pure fallacy. Cats are capable of deep emotional connections with human companions. Their recognition and understanding just differ from our own. Understanding this fact can help strengthen our bond.
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Does My Cat Recognize Me?
Cats are capable of telling humans apart. This will not come as a surprise to any cat owner. Most felines have a ‘favorite person, preferring the company of some over others. The cat does not identify this person by sight, though.
A study profiled by The Journal of Vision tested 12 cats on their recognition of human owners. Just 54% of the cats recognized their owners by sight alone. Human faces, it seems, do not register with cats. In effect, we all look the same.
Part of this is how cats see humans. It is believed that cats see humans as fellow felines. Cats are a little perturbed by our size and wonder why we are so comparatively clumsy. As owners are non-aggressive, cats accept human companionship.
Some will dispute this theory, claiming that cats remember their fellow felines. The same study found that cats recognized other felines on sight 85% of the time. This could be because cats are innately more wary of other felines.
If you watch your cat interact with another cat, you will understand this claim. Cats can automatically become wary upon sight of another feline. It seems to be recalling a negative experience or questioning why this infiltrator is entering claimed territory.
This is likely because cats have long memories when it comes to bad experiences. First impressions matter to cats and can result in a long-held grudge. If two neighborhood cats fight on a first meeting, they’ll remember it. This is simple, instinctive self-preservation.
In addition, we must remember how powerful a cat’s senses of hearing and smell are. These senses, more than sight, are how a cat tells individuals apart. It is these senses that help a cat to bond with an owner.
Why Do Cats Not Recognize Faces?
If you were asked to describe a cat without mentioning size or fur color, you would struggle. To human eyes, all cats have an identical poker face. The same can be said in reverse. Cats need more than just vision to distinguish between humans.
Imagine that you have been asked to describe somebody’s face. Think about the characteristics you would use. The most obvious examples would be skin tone, eye color, hair color, and distinguishing features.
Now, consider this through the eyes of a cat. Felines have three vision cones in their retina. According to Vision Research, these are less effective at deciphering color than those of a human. This makes telling humans apart by pigmentation impossible for a cat.
Cats are naturally long-sighted. This is an evolution of hunting and survival instincts. Wild cats survey terrain from afar, deciding whether it will be safe and fruitful to enter. Up close, a cat’s vision is blurry.
This makes a prominent nose, distinctive chin or even scars or tattoos difficult to make out. Even facial hair does not register in cat vision. The cat would need to rub itself against you to learn the texture.
Think about the size discrepancy between cats and humans. We remember the faces of other people, as we are typically at the same eye level. Cats spend more time at our feet. Your cat will rarely be close to your face long enough to memorize it.
This all makes the human face is an indistinguishable mass of features to a cat. All they really see is a tall shadowy shape with two arms and legs. This is why a cat’s excellent additional senses make up for this shortfall in vision.
Cats Recognize Their Owner’s Voices
According to Animal Cognition, cats clearly recognize owners by their voice. A test played cats three vocal tracks. One belonged to an owner, with stranger’s voices making up the rest. 75% of the cats responded to their owner’s voice, ignoring the others.
There are limits to this. A cat will not necessarily be able to pick up its owner’s voice in a crowd. Volume will also play a part. If you typically speak to your cat in a gentle sing-song tone, yelling may go unrecognized.
This stems from early experiences. As Development Psychobiology explains, kittens respond to their mother’s voice. A mother cat uses a unique meow or chirp to gain the attention of her young. This warns them of danger or announces an imminent feeding.
When a cat grows up and leaves its mother, its owner takes over the role. You become your cat’s primary caregiver. The cat expects you to keep it safe from harm, providing food and shelter. This means that a cat will respond to your voice in the same way as its mother.
My Cat is Not Responding to Me
This revelation may be frustrating. If your cat recognizes your voice, why does it ignore you when you call it? Nature confirms that cats recognize their names. The answer to this is layered. Know that your cat is, in fact, responding to you. You just may not notice.
Recognition of an owner’s voice is subtle. A cat will not necessarily come bounding into a room like a dog. It will simply tilt its head a little and twitch its ears. This denotes that the cat has acknowledged the voice, then continued with its important cat business.
Do not take this personally. Your cat is not ignoring you. A lack of obvious reaction means that a cat recognizes your voice and feels safe. If not, the sound would be more startling.
The cat will find you and discover what you wanted later, when it is ready. As explained by Current Biology, this should be deemed a compliment. The behavior suggests a secure attachment. Your cat trusts you and your affection. It did not consider it necessary to react.
An immediate reaction could suggest a more insecure bond between owner and cat. The cat is racing to see you, because it fears you may not call again. This explains why some cats respond to others above owners.
A cat will respond with excitement to certain voices, such as that of a family friend. The cat does not see this person daily, and thus experiences a more insecure attachment. A good cat parent is never far away for long, so the bond is more secure.
Recognition of Other Sounds
It is not only an owner’s voice that a cat will recognize. Cats will also learn and memorize any other sounds that you make. Footsteps and breathing are common examples of this.
When you return home from work, you may find your cat waiting at the door. Your cat has memorized your gait and learned to recognize the sound of your footsteps. Due to excellent hearing, the cat heard you approaching from afar.
Cats also recognize the patterns of human breathing. Do you wake up in the morning to find your cat staring at you? The cat has not retained this position all night. It heard changes to your breathing.
Cats understand how you sound when you’re in a deep sleep versus almost awake. This is could be a simple lack of snoring. Cats quickly learn that they get no attention while a human is making this sound.
Lighter and shallower breaths, however, are clearly distinguishable. Your cat will listen for these, knowing that breakfast will soon follow.
This, again, stems from the recognition of an owner’s mannerisms and behavior. A cat is unlikely to attempt this with a stranger. In these instances, the cat will meow and claw until the unfamiliar human wakes up.
Cats Recognize Their Owner’s Scent
Scent is another key trigger in feline recognition. Cats have up to 80 million scent receptors in their nose. That’s as many as 20 times more than humans. According to Applied Animal Behavior Science, scent is pivotal to a cat’s daily life and understanding.
Every human also has a distinguishable scent to a cat. This is as unique as a fingerprint to a feline. Humans recognize each other’s scent through artificial means, such as perfume or shampoo. A cat’s nose cuts through this artifice, picking up the aroma of our skin.
If you change a scent that you wear, a cat will notice this. It will pique the cat’s curiosity. Your cat may stare at you with its mouth open, tongue lolling and upper lip curled. This is not a look of disgust. It is called the flehmen response.
The vomeronasal organ (Jacobson’s organ) is found in the roof of a cat’s mouth. The expression we just described provides access to this. Cats use the flehmen response when encountering a new smell. They are taking in the scent in full, committing it to memory.
Cats remember things that are important to them. As a result, they will be keen to memorize a new smell associated with their owner. They will be able to detect this aroma from distance, thus knowing where you are.
Marking Humans to Claim Them
In addition, your cat will be checking your scent for any markings before you speak. As discussed, cats will not recognize an owner by sight. Until you speak, you could be anybody as far as a cat is concerned. Scent provides immediate recognition.
Your cat will leave its mark on you constantly. Every time your cat rubs its head or paws on you, it leaves a scent behind. This is marking you as a source of pleasure. Think of it as the cat equivalent of a note to self. You are the provider of food or play – your smell confirms it.
When your cat first acknowledges you, it will check for these scents. As soon as it picks up on them, it will approach. The cat has confirmed that you are not a threat. Instead, it will draw comfort from your scent.
Your cat is also checking for other smells. As innately curious animals, cats want to know what you have been doing without them. Your skin and clothing will carry scents associated with where you have been.
If you start speaking to your cat, it confirms your identity beyond doubt. The cat will then start to rub itself against you. The cat is reapplying its own scent, covering up these new aromas. They will quickly be replaced by your cat’s own, unique smell.
Your cat knows that other felines use scent to recognize you. This rubbing is your cat’s way of marking you as its own. It is sending a warning to other cats that you have been claimed. These rivals will need to find their own human.
Cats do recognize their owners and any other human. They just do not do so by looking at us. Voice and scent are the key factors of feline recognition. Speak to your cat regularly and encourage affectionate marking. This will help your cat to recognize you as an important part of its life.