A new study from Japan found cats keep track of their humans even when they’re not looking at them.
A research team from the University of Kyoto conducted the experiments in a cat cafe and in individual cats’ homes. Each cat was placed in a room without their humans. Then the researchers tested the way felines reacted to hearing their people calling their names from outside the room, followed by their reactions to hearing them inside via speakers.
When the cats heard their humans calling them from inside the room the furballs were surprised, expressing their confusion with ear twitches, whisker movement and uncertain body language.
On the other hand, when cats heard “non-social stimuli” — scientist-speak for sounds other than familiar people calling to them — they didn’t react to changes in the location and direction.
Some people might shrug and wonder what the fuss is about, but the experiment actually confirms a great deal about feline intelligence. It’s a test of what scientists call “socio-spatial cognition,” meaning cats form a mental map of things that are important to them, and nothing’s more important to a house cat than the person who provides food, security and affection.
That’s significant because it’s confirmation that cats understand object permanence, and that they are more than capable of abstract thought. Abstract thought — the ability to picture and think about something mentally, without having to see it — is hugely important in intelligence, allowing everything from creativity to understanding that other animals and people have their own points of view. For context, it takes about two years for human children to develop rudimentary abstract thinking skills.
Cats “may be thinking about many things,” Saho Takagi, the study’s lead author, told CNN.
“This study shows that cats can mentally map their location based on their owner’s voice,” Takagi said, per The Guardian. “[It suggests] that cats have the ability to picture the invisible in their minds. Cats have a more profound mind than is thought.”
The results aren’t surprising from an evolutionary perspective, biologist Roger Tabor said.
“That awareness of movement – tracking things they cannot see – is critical to a cat’s survival,” Tabor told The Guardian.
“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? A cat’s owner is extremely significant in its life as a source of food and security, so where we are is very important.”
The study is also another piece of evidence showing cats are just as aware of — and concerned about — their people as dogs are, even though the conventional wisdom says they don’t care most of the time. That has implications for the way people bond with their cats, and the decisions we make about caring for them — like, for instance, how long we’re willing to leave them on their own while planning a trip.
“This is a great example of elevating our expectation of the cat a little bit,” cat behavior consultant Ingrid Johnson told CNN, “and realizing that they do have the capability of having that bond in that relationship where they actually will take comfort in their people.”