In tests with hidden loudspeakers, cats show signs of being surprised when their owner’s voice seemed to quickly “teleport” from one side of a room to another
10 November 2021
Domestic cats can mentally map their owner’s location simply from the sound of their voice.
Previous studies of cats (Felis catus) have revealed they are able to track objects that move out of sight – showcasing a level of what is known as “object permanence”, the recognition that an object continues to exist even if it can no longer be seen. But few studies have tested how cats use their other senses to track objects and individuals.
Saho Takagi at Kyoto University in Japan and her colleagues put cats’ hearing to the test by investigating how they responded to their owner’s voice.
To do so, they studied 50 domestic cats – 27 of which live at “cat cafes” where people can pay to watch and play with cats, while the remaining 23 were house cats.
The team placed each cat alone in a test room with two doors and a window. They placed a speaker outside the room near one door and a second speaker outside near the second door or the window. The two speakers were at least 4 metres apart. To observe the cats, the team set up five video cameras in the room.
During each test, the researchers used the speakers to play recordings of the cat’s owner – whether a cafe owner or a member of the household – or a stranger calling the cat’s name. The voice was played twice, 2.5 seconds apart, and could come from either the same speaker both times or once from each speaker.
Eight people then evaluated each cat’s response by carefully analysing the video footage.
The results suggest that cats show little surprise – indicated by moving their ears or changing head direction – when their owner’s voice was played twice from the same speaker, or when the stranger’s voice was played either twice from the same speaker or once from each speaker.
But if the familiar voice of the cat’s owner was played from first one and then the second speaker 4 metres away just a few seconds later, the cats did show signs of surprise.
The authors suggest that cats can mentally track their owner’s location using their voice, and thus exhibit surprise when their owners suddenly seem to “teleport” to a new place. The results indicate a previously unknown socio-spatial awareness in cats.
“Cats may have a mind that is more profound than we think,” says Takagi.
Angelo Quaranta at the University of Bari Aldo Moro, Italy, says: “The understanding of cats’ socio-cognitive abilities to perceive their emotions is crucial for improving the quality of human-cat and cat-cat relationships, as well as cat welfare in the domestic environment.”
Journal reference: PLoS One, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0257611
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