Cats have this special ability: they can tell where their owner is by sound

László Enikő

2023. June 16 - Photos: Getty Images Hungary

In tests with hidden speakers, cats showed signs of surprise when their owner's voice seemed to rapidly "teleport" from one corner of the room to another.


According to research, your cat probably uses sounds to track where you are, even if it can’t see you. A cat create a “mental map” by hearing that track their owner’s location based on the direction of certain sounds. This ability was previously unknown in felines.

The hearing of cats

Cats have excellent hearing and can use sounds to infer the location of potential prey even in poor visibility. They have more than twenty muscles in their sensitive ears and can move their ears independently in all directions. Their hearing range is from 55 Hz to 79 kHz. These ecological and anatomical features may facilitate the cognitive processing of auditory information.

What is a mental map in a cat barin?

The study’s first author, Saho Takagi, a PhD student at Kyoto University, has long been interested in the hearing of cats. “I saw a cat with only one of its ears tilted back, listening to the sound behind it, and felt that cats must be thinking about many things from the sound.” – said soho Tagaki. “This time, I investigated whether they map their owner’s position spatially from sounds.”

The team conducted a series of experiments to find out whether cats actively follow their owners using cues such as sound. They played recordings of human voices calling out cat names from different locations. For example, a nearby speaker announced “Fluffy!”, indicating to the kitty that the owner was nearby. After that a speaker in another room called the same name again. The cats were surprised by a sound coming from an unexpected place. This suggests that domesticated cats use sound cues to spatially map their owners, even if they are in the next room.

“These results suggest that cats hold a mental representation of the unseen owner and map their owner’s location from the owner’s voice, showing evidence of socio-spatial cognition.” – the researchers wrote in the paper.

Previous studies have shown that cats can distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar human voices, and can also successfully locate hidden objects. “Therefore it seems plausible that cats should be able to mentally map others’ locations based on vocalizations.” – they explained.

Other animals can also do this

Cats aren’t the only animals that can track what can’t be seen. This phenomenon is called object constancy. Children usually begin to develop this ability around eight months. Previous research has also found object constancy in primates such as chimpanzees and gorillas. The authors of the study note that intelligent non-primates such as jays, sloth bears, meerkats and dogs also have this ability.

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