New research suggests your cat is likely using sounds to keep track of where you are, even when you’re out of sight. Domestic cats create “mental maps” that track where their owner is located based on the direction of certain sounds, an ability that was previously unknown in felines, according to new research published this week in the journal PLOS One.
Study author Saho Takagi, a doctoral student at Kyoto University, says she has long been interested in cats' hearing and their ability to move their ears in different directions.
"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," Takagi says in an email to CNN’s Sherry Liang. "This time, I investigated whether they map their owner's position spatially from sounds."
The team conducted a series of experiments to find out if cats actively track their owners using cues like sound. They played recordings of human voices calling a cat’s name from different locations, in what they called “teleportation-like scenarios.” For example, a nearby speaker would announce “Fluffy!”, suggesting to the kitty that the owner was close, and then a speaker in a different room would call the same name again. The felines appeared surprised by the voice coming from an unexpected location, suggesting that domesticated cats spatially map their human companions using audio cues, even when they’re in the next room, reports Hannah Osborne for Newsweek.
"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 write in the paper. Earlier studies have shown that cats can tell familiar and unfamiliar human voices apart, and locate hidden objects. Therefore, "it seems plausible that cats should be able to mentally map others' locations based on vocalizations,” they explain.
Cats aren’t the only animals that can keep track of something that is out of sight, an ability called object permanence. Human children usually start to develop the skill around eight months, reports Mindy Weisberger for Live Science, and previous research has found object permanence in primates such as chimpanzees and gorillas. The study authors note that intelligent nonprimate animals like Eurasian jays, sloth bears, meerkats and domesticated dogs also share object permanence.
"It is generally believed that cats are not as interested in their owners as dogs are, but it turns out that they were mentally representing the invisible presence of their owners," Takagi tells CNN.
The study team wasn’t sure whether cats were surprised because their owner's voice appeared in an unexpected location, or because the owner wasn’t in the expected location the cat had mentally mapped, and say more research is needed. The ability to form a mental map of the world is a hallmark of animal intelligence and "an important feature in complex thinking," the authors conclude, which provides new insights that may inform future studies of the feline brain.