Do cats recognize their owners? This really is a million dollar question if you are a cat lover!
After all, you love your cat to the moon and back, and you sure would love to know if your cat loves you in return.
Research in this field is still young, but we do have some data to help shed light on cats’ behavior with humans.
How do cats see humans? Are we a different species, or just another cat, or do we fall somewhere in between?
Let’s find out now!
Do cats recognize their owners?
Cats can both remember and recognize their owners. They can tell you apart from other people, spot you when you walk across the room towards them and remember whether it was you who gives them those all important meals.
We have feline behaviorists studying cat cognition to thank for answering the question of do cats recognize their owners.
From their research, we can break down our cats’ understanding of who we are and what we represent into multiple component parts.
What do cats think of humans? Laying good foundations
One thing we know is that being recognized – and being recognized in a good way – starts with good socialization.
Not surprisingly, research shows us that kittens who are well socialized during critical periods (from two weeks to seven weeks of age) are more open to human interaction than their non-socialized feline peers.
In other words, they’re more likely to be receptive to building a bond with you.
Do cats remember you when you leave?
In one important study, researchers measured whether cats have “object permanence”.
Object permanence means understanding that something goes on existing even when you can’t see it, hear it or otherwise perceive it.
It’s a skill which human children typically develop in the first six or seven months of life.
Cats do demonstrate some ability in this area, which means they know when you, their owner, are present, and that you still exist somewhere when you are absent.
Do cats understand humans?
Yet another study in 2005 looked at whether cats could understand human visual cues, such as pointing to where food is located, and follow those cues to get the food.
Not surprisingly, the cats did manage to find the food, although it is hard to know whether this had more to do with the person pointing to it or the scent of the food source giving it away!
Another intriguing study placed cats into a room with something stressful (a blowing floor fan with streamers tied to it) and their owner.
When their owner displayed body language and facial expressions that indicated nervousness or fear, the cats were seen to exhibit more fearfulness as well as more desire for interaction when their owner.
The researchers weren’t sure what to make of this, but they hypothesized that the cat was seeking comfort from their owner in the fearful situation.
How do cats see humans?
This comfort seeking may come as a surprise, because as most cat owners already know, cats are not prone to look to humans for help in the same way that dogs do.
Researchers are not sure why cats do not do this, especially because other studies have shown that cats are sensitive to human moods and emotions.
One theory is that it just hasn’t been necessary for cats to seek help from humans.
Another hypothesis posits that we haven’t given cats the proper motivation to seek our help….yet.
Cat behavior with humans
Put together, these studies tell us that some aspects of a cat’s interactions with people may be genetic while others may be learned.
They also indicate that we still have much more to learn about cat behavior and the feline-human relationship!
However, we can already infer that yes, cats absolutely do know their owners and that they show this through vocalizing, physical contact and following their visual cues.
Cats learn to prefer (rather than avoid) human contact through early socialization, and demonstrate it in stressful situations.
Communication and cats’ behavior with humans
A big part of sharing life with a cat is developing some method to effectively communicate with one another.
Without a shared verbal language, cats and their owners must rely largely on body language and nonverbal communication to develop their communication.
Here is an example.
Say, for instance, it is near your cat’s feeding time. You start to hear a rather restless-sounding, loud meowing.
This is not a mellow purr. In fact, it sounds more like a not-half-bad imitation of a car alarm!
Do you know what your cat is trying to communicate to you? If you said “she’s hungry!” this is an example of your communication!
Why does your cat use this particular purr near the dinner hour? She wants to tell you she is ready for her food!
Other ways cats communicate with humans including purring, kneading and rubbing against us, grooming us and yowling.
A raised tail with a twitching tip or a deliberate-seeming stare are other ways cats communicate love and affection to “their” people.
How well do our cats understand us?
Feline researchers say that cats are adept at studying “their” human family and knowing what makes each family member tick.
For example, cats quickly learn which family members are more apt to cave in and give them treats or to feed them earlier in the morning.
And they don’t hesitate to use that knowledge for personal gain!
They don’t just recognize us – they remember who is a soft touch, and what communication to use to make themselves understood.
The fact remains that some cat breeds are naturally more vocal and social than other cat breeds.
But even if your cat is very shy, quiet and reserved, you can look for and find the subtler ways he has found to communicate his bond with you.
Using your connection to train your cat
As a cat owner and cat lover, it is always nice to know your love and slavish devotion is returned!
Another perk of knowing that the answer to “do cats recognize their owners?” is “yes!” is realizing that you can use it to train your cat!
For centuries, people assumed cats couldn’t be trained, so they didn’t attempt any feline training.
Today, researchers have successfully trained cats to participate in a variety of feline intelligence and behavioral studies.
When your cat recognizes you, and learns that you personally reward certain behaviors, an important building block for successful training falls into place.
The proof is in the pudding
Not surprisingly, food tends to be a great motivator when you want to train a cat.
In a wild or free feeding situation, cats may eat up to 20 small meals per day.
So essentially, a cat is always only minutes away from being ready for her next meal.
A recent research study focusing on shelter cats showed that clicker training with food rewards is another effective method for training cats.
Here, cats with a greater motivation for a food reward performed better on the training tests, but all of the participating cats showed the ability to be trained.
This video on the National Geographic website featuring a performing circus of trained former shelter cats shows clearly the extent to which cats can be trained – here again, with the proper food motivation.
Of course, some people might argue that the cat is really training the person, and this may also be true!
Let’s look at purring again…
In one exploratory research study, cat owners recorded their own cats’ purrs during different times of day and activities (being petted, being fed, et al).
Then human volunteers were recruited to listen to the cat purrs and interpret their meanings.
Regardless of personal experience with cats, three-quarters of the human volunteers correctly identified purrs related to asking for food versus other purrs.
As it turned out, the more urgent purrs were louder and harsher to the human ear.
When researchers analyzed the sound waves from the purring, they discovered that the food-purr had a similar frequency and decibel level as a human baby crying!
No wonder cats figure out quickly to use that purr to get our attention at mealtimes!
What do cats think of humans?
Next let’s look at what feelings it might conjure up when our cat recognizes us.
In 2007, researchers used a classic research study called the “Ainsworth’s Adapted Strange Situation Test” to look at how cats might react differently to their owner versus an unknown person.
This study included 28 cats, their owners, and unknown humans.
Each cat was placed into a strange room accompanied by their owner and then by an unknown human.
Researchers observed that the cats were more apt to explore and wander around when their owner was present and were less likely to do these things with a strange human present.
This was significant because how the cats behaved when placed in the room with their respective owners was quite similar to the type of attachment infants tend to display with their mothers!
So these cats didn’t just recognize their owners, they were more confident and secure in exploring when their owner was nearby, compared to a stranger.
Cats’ behavior with humans
Cat behavior is often stereotyped as being fickle and aloof.
But we’ve seen here that cats don’t just recognize their owners, they learn how to communicate with them and act more confidently in their presence.
And we can use their attachment to positively reinforce good behavior too.
The most likely truth is that neither humans nor cats fully potential of this mutual training, socialization and domestication process yet .
For instance, feline biologists point to the fact that, unlike with dogs, we have not yet attempted to alter our companion felines’ behavior to be more to our liking in any way.
This includes how they respond to us and how quickly they respond to us.
Is it possible that, should we decide to take a more active role in shaping feline behavior in the future, we could accomplish these changes within several generations?
This might even include training cats to display their affection for us more openly or in different ways!
Do cats recognize their owners?
Now you know what feline researchers have discovered so far about the significance of human-cat interactions.
From this data, it would appear that the answer to “do cats recognize their owners?” is a resounding YES.
So perhaps the legendary so-called indifference of cats to people is not indifference at all, but simply a different way of showing attachment.
While more research is needed, it seems your cat does recognize you in her own uniquely feline way!
What do you think?
Do cats recognize their owners?
If so, what do cats think about their owners?
We’d love to hear your ideas and stories – please drop us a comment here!
Dell’Amore, K., “What Do Cats Think About Us? You May Be Surprised,” National Geographic, 2014.
Letzter, R., “Sorry, Cat Haters, Science Isn’t On Your Side,” Popular Science, 2014.
Saito, S., et al, “Vocal recognition of owners by domestic cats,” Animal Cognition/National Institutes of Health, 2013.
Edwards, C., DVM, et al, “Experimental evaluation of attachment behaviors in owned cats.,” Science Direct/Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 2007.
Vitale, S., et al, “What’s inside your cat’s head? A review of cat (Felis silvestris catus) cognition research past, present and future.,” National Institutes of Health/Animal Cognition Journal, 2015.
Muth, F., “What We Understand about Cats and What They Understand about Us,” Scientific American, 2016.
Kogan, L., et al, “Assessment of Clicker Training for Shelter Cats,” Animals/National Institutes of Health, 2017. McComb, K., et al, “Cat Purrs Evoke Baby Cries,” Science, 2009.
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