Have you ever wondered how your cat knows you’re you? In other words, how do they know you as a distinct person from your spouse, mom, brother, or a complete stranger?
In this article we’ll cover the following;
Like humans, cats possess the five traditionally recognized senses. Known as the “Aristotelian” senses, sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch are the primary way humans and cats experience the world.
While cats, and humans for that matter, do have other senses, such as pain, balance, and temperature, the primary senses are the most likely suspects for how cats are able to discriminate between people. Let’s take a closer look at each of these senses.
Most people think of a cat’s vision as being their main superhuman sense. That’s understandable since cats can see six times better in the dark than humans do and have an equally-heightened ability to detect motion in these darkened settings.
While cats certainly have superhuman sight, they also beat humans in most of their other senses as well.
What may come as a surprise is that cats have a sense of smell that might surpass that of a dog.
With dogs that sniff out bombs, drugs, and even dead bodies, everyone knows how good their nose is. The extraordinary canine sense of smell can be credited to a dog’s incredible number of olfactory receptors, the microscopic proteins in the nose that mammals use to detect odors.
A dog’s nose contains between 149 million and 300 million olfactory receptors. By comparison, cats have a respectable 45 million to 80 million receptors, while the human nose comes in with a scant 5 million.
However, the sheer number of olfactory receptors an animal possesses does not tell the whole story.
In addition to the number of receptors, there are also three different kinds of scent receptor proteins in mammal noses. One of these, known to scientists as V1R, is believed to control a mammal’s ability to discriminate one scent from another.
Dogs have nine variants of the V1R protein and humans have two while cats have 30. But, before you start bragging on cats, you may want to consider that rats have 120 V1R proteins variants, which might be why they are so successful at sniffing out landmines in Cambodia.
What all this means is that dogs may have a better ability to pick up extremely faint or faraway odors, but a cat is probably better at discriminating between different scents.
It is thought that cats may even be able to detect human pregnancy with their nose.
When it comes to hearing, cats beat humans hands down. With a hearing range from about 45 Hz up to 79 kHz, cats far outhear humans who possess a paltry range from about 20 Hz to 20 kHz.
This means cats can hear sounds we can’t hear, and are likely better at telling apart different sounds.
Cats have only about 500 taste buds compared to our nearly 10,000. Needless to say, their sense of taste is rather weak.
Even so, it is possible that different people do each have a unique taste to a cat. However, a cat’s sense of taste isn’t a good candidate for the primary way a cat can tell its owner apart from other people.
This is because we know cats can recognize their owners from a distance. If they knew us only by taste, they would have to lick us each time we came into a room.
While you might be your cat’s favorite flavor of person, you can bet they know who you are before they go in for a lick.
Your cat very well may appreciate that only you know that exact, special little spot where they liked being scratched the most. But, for the same reason as taste, it’s unlikely this is how they know who you are.
Because cats do know us from a distance, recognition must come from sight, smell, hearing, or a combination of these senses.
Surprisingly, it does not appear that cats recognize us primarily by sight. And though they don’t jump for joy when they see us, cats do actually recognize us.
Numerous experiments have been done showing that dogs are hardwired to read our faces. From relatively early puppyhood, dogs look at our faces and understand our emotions through our facial expression.
Cats, however, don’t seemed to be wired the same way. When cats were the subjects of facial recognition experiments, they appeared only to be able to pick up the emotional states of their owners, but not those of strangers.
The scientists conducting the study concluded that cats did not have the innate ability to perceive human emotions from human facial expression as dogs and, of course, people can do. Instead, cats have some ability to learn their owners’ expressions, but only after they have spent some amount of time living and interacting with that person.
All this suggests that cats may have some ability learn how their owner looks, and perhaps how they move and their physical mannerisms. But, unlike dogs, it doesn’t seem that cats are born with the ability to recognize human faces.
Cats certainly do have an exquisite sense of smell. And, as we can see from the following video, cats do take an interest in smelling their owners, even if they can’t handle what their feet smell like!
Just to be clear, the funny open-mouth face the cat makes in this video is not displeasure, but is actually called the flehmen response, a sense beyond the five Aristotelian senses. When cats do this behaviour, they transfer pheromones and other scents into their vomeronasal organ located in the roof of their mouth.
Exhibited by many mammals, it is thought the flehmen response is used to assess sexual status in other animals. Even in humans, if you run your tongue along the roof of your mouth, you can feel two small pits.
These are the vestigial vomeronasal organs that no longer seem to have any function in humans. So you best just keep your flehmen response to yourself.
Anyway, it is likely that cats do recognize us as their owners from our uniques scents. Even dogs, who identify their owners with sight more than cats, will trust their nose over their eyes, as we can see in the following video. This owner had been hospitalized for several weeks and lost enough weight that his dog didn’t recognize him by sight.
Scientists in Tokyo measured the responses of cats when hearing the voices of strangers calling to them compared to hearing their owners. The cats could not see the person making the sounds.
All of the cats had an higher level of response when their owners called to them. Based on their reactions, the scientists were able to conclude that cats are able to use vocal cues alone to distinguish between humans.
We know cats can tell their owner from their voices, and that cats have a great sense of smell. Also, while cats don’t have the innate ability to discriminate human faces like dogs, they do have the ability to learn.
It is likely that cats know their owner first from smell, and then learn to recognize their voice. In addition, over time, the cat probably learns the gait and movements of their owner and maybe, just maybe, they can even learn a little bit of how your face looks.
Cats are amazing beings with extraordinary senses. If you want to know more about cats and how they see the world, check out The Inner Life of Cats: The Science and Secrets of Our Mysterious Feline Companions.
Or, if you want to give your cat a sensory spa day, try the Catit Design Senses Comfort Zone Elevated Bed. It’s especially good for older cats that might have a touch of arthritis.
If you have any questions or would like to share a story about how you know your cat knows who you are, please tell us in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!
Phil’s lifelong love of animals began as a young boy growing up with three pet dogs. As a teenager and young adult, Phil spent six years working as a veterinary technician, later earning a B.S. in Animal Science. After college, Phil continued working as a vet tech part-time while caring for a private collection of mountain lions used in wildlife educational programs. During this time, Phil volunteered at the Dallas Zoo and was eventually offered a position as a zookeeper in the zoo’s naturalistic Wilds of Africa area. Phil became the primary keeper for a black leopard named “Grady” and a caracal named “Tut” in the predator/prey exhibit.