How Your Cat Knows Where You Are in the House

Cats listen and form a “mental map” to determine your location

In a study from Japan, researchers looked at whether cats can track the location of their owners via sounds and a mental map of their last location. Researchers noted that cats appeared to be surprised or startled when the owner’s voice suddenly came from a different location. A stranger’s voice moving did not evoke much of a response, suggesting that the owner’s voice had value to the cats.

The cats’ surprise responses were expressed by a combination of behaviors including moving ears, head direction, and looking back, which the researchers believe is valid for detecting surprise. The cats could not see their owners, so they had to be basing their responses totally on auditory input. The cats easily discriminated between their owner and a stranger by voice alone.

After testing with the owner’s voice versus a stranger’s voice, the experiment was repeated with another cat meowing as the auditory test, and then a nonsocial sound. Cats were not particularly responsive to changes with the “meows” of other cats. Cats tend to only use that vocalization when interacting with people, so perhaps the cats simply didn’t care when that sound moved unexpectedly. Cats were also nonresponsive to the sound of a dog toy. The results of this study suggest that cats do track the whereabouts of their owners.n

Takagi S, et al (2021) Socio-spatial cognition in cats: Mentally mapping owner’s location from voice. PLoS ONE 16(11): e0257611.