Cats Track Their Owners’ Movements, Research Finds1
It turns out that cats keep a mental map of their territory inside their heads which they can use to abstract out information. A recent study showed however that on the legend of that map, the largest icon is us: their owners.
Cats track where their owners are at all times, a study from the University of Kyoto demonstrated, and become deeply confused when we turn up where we shouldn’t be according to the cats’ mental maps.
Abstraction is a higher-order brain function that is the basis for trial and error and other kinds of learning, but also tool use, complex problem solving, hunting, and more.
One thing which abstraction allows is to be able to place objects and forces in and around the environment, even if they can’t be immediately perceived, for example the cat food in the cupboard, the mouse among the tall grass, or the owner in the next room over.
Dr. Saho Takagi conducted a study that placed 50 cats inside individual rooms, where their owner’s voice was periodically calling from outside.
Then either a stranger or the owner’s voice would be played from a speaker in a corner of the room. Observing individuals who didn’t know which voice was being played, ranked the appearance of shock on the cat’s face and body posture at the time the voice came from inside the room.
As per the authors’ predictions, the cats appeared the most surprised when, hearing and abstracting their owner as outside of the room, they suddenly appeared inside, coming through the speakers.
“A lot of what a cat has to interpret in its territory is an awareness of where other cats are. It is also important for hunting: how could a cat catch a field vole moving around beneath the grass if it couldn’t use clues, such as the occasional rustle, to see in its mind’s eye, where they are?” Roger Tabor, a biologist and BBC host of the TV show Cats, told the Guardian.
“A cat’s owner is extremely significant in its life as a source of food and security, so where we are is very important.”
Interestingly, the cats didn’t exhibit the same surprised response if the owner’s voice was replaced with a cat’s meow, or electronic sounds, reinforcing just how important our voices are to the day-to-day mental state of our cats.
It’s sometimes said that cats don’t care about their owners as much as dogs, but knowing they have an invisible map of the house, with the owner always highlighted, soundly scuppers that theory.