Research shows that cats can recognise their owners, and their owner’s voice, even after they’ve been apart for a while. Find out how cats see their owners and if they recognise their own name
When your cat comes running up to you when you come home, weaving around your legs for a fuss, you might wonder how they recognise you from other people. Similarly, when they give you a blank stare and ignore your calls of pspspsps, you might wonder if they actually recognise your face or voice at all.
If you’ve ever been separated from your cat, for example when you’ve gone on holiday or they’ve gone missing, you might also wonder how long they would remember you for, or whether they would forget you easily when you were apart.
Studies have shown that cats can recognise their owners, even after they’ve been apart from them for an extended period of time, but they don’t rely on sight to identify us. While some smaller studies do suggest that cats can identify their owners just from their face (eg from a photo), the way they recognise us is more likely to involve smell and sound, as these are the senses cats rely on most to understand the world around them. Cats certainly recognise humans as a different species, because they are likely to be more wary of other cats than they are of humans.
Does my cat recognise my voice?
Cats have very sensitive hearing and so can tell the difference between their owner’s voice and the voice of another person. Interestingly, they can also tell when we are talking specifically to them. A study in Animal Cognition has shown that cats can detect the subtle changes in their owner’s voice when they are talking to them as opposed to having a conversation with another person. They are more likely to respond to this cat-directed speech, similar to the way babies are more likely to respond when we use ‘baby talk’. Just because they can recognise your voice though, it doesn’t mean they’ll always listen, as anyone who has been ignored by a cat will know!
Do cats recognise their name?
Cats are able to recognise their own name and can even be trained to respond to it. Although cats can’t understand the meaning of words like we can, they do recognise the sound of specific words and their connection with particular scenarios. For example, if you call their name when you return home, or just before you’re going to feed them, they’ll learn that this sound is associated with them getting something nice, such as a fuss or some food, and so will be more likely to come running the next time they hear it. If your cat doesn’t respond to their name, then they’re not ignoring you, it’s just that they haven’t built up an association with the sound of their name yet. Find out how to train your cat to respond to their name.
Do cats recognise faces?
Cats don’t see the world in the same way we do and although they have better night vision than us and are better at detecting movement, they don’t see the full range of colours we can and struggle to see things that are very close up or very far away. It’s unlikely your cat will know you by your face as cats are likely to see their owners as grey and blurry shapes. Instead, they’re more likely to recognise your smell or voice. Dogs, on the other hand, are able to recognise human faces and facial expressions because they’ve been living alongside humans for much longer than cats have.
How do you know if your cat recognises you?
A good sign that your cat recognises you is if they approach you of their own free will, perhaps rubbing against your hand or legs, or jumping on your lap. This usually shows that they are familiar with you and comfortable in your presence. Some particularly friendly cats may do this with complete strangers though, so it’s not a fool-proof test! The context of the situation may also have an influence over whether your cat recognises you. For example, if you and your cat are in an unfamiliar or stressful environment, such as at the vets, there’s a chance they may not respond to you in the same way they usually would, because they are distracted by lots of different and unfamiliar sounds and smells around them.
Will my cat forget me if I leave them for a month or longer?
Cats have a really good memory and so as long as they have built up a strong bond with you over an extended period of time, they won’t forget you easily. Even if you’ve been separated for a while, it’s likely that they will still recognise your smell and voice, although it’s difficult to say exactly how long they will remember you for. They will be more likely to recognise you if you are reunited in the context of their familiar home environment. If you are reunited somewhere unfamiliar, such as at the vets or on a street far from home, they may struggle to identify you with lots of strange sounds and smells around. Remember to keep your cat’s microchip details up to date so that you can be reunited if they ever go missing, whether they recognise you or not! Find out more about microchipping and what to do if you your cat goes missing.
Even though your cat can recognise you, it’s unlikely that they remember you in the same way you would remember them when you are apart. Cats live in the moment and don’t see time in the same way we do. They don’t have a concept of the past or future, so won’t be thinking of you when you’re away, wondering what you’re up to or where you’ve gone. They’ll only remember you when you show up again and they recognise your familiar smell or sounds.
Do cats recognise their mother, siblings and kittens?
Kitten should stay with their mother and siblings until they are at least eight weeks old, and during this time the mother cat will recognise her kittens, and the young cats will recognise their mother and siblings, because they all have a shared scent. However, once the kittens have grown up and the family has separated, it’s unlikely they would still recognise each other if they were reunited again as their scent would have changed. Find out more about caring for kittens.
Can cats recognise themselves in a mirror?
While some animals, such as great apes, dolphins, elephants and magpies, can recognise themselves in the mirror, cats cannot. Similar to babies before they are around 18 months old, if a cat see’s their reflection in a mirror, they won’t realise it’s themselves and will either ignore it or think that it’s another cat looking back at them. Seeing an unfamiliar cat in the mirror could cause your cat to become quite stressed, so never force your cat to look in a mirror, and always give them an escape route to run away from the ‘imposter cat’ if they want to.