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How do cats recognise their owners, even after years apart?

Cat sniffing owner's hand

Yes, cats recognise their owners.

© Evrymmnt - Shutterstock

Have you ever wondered whether cats recognise their owners? While we may hope our feline friends instantly know who we are when we come home, is this the case?
 

By Zoë Monk

Published on the 13/03/2021, 18:00

There's nothing better than coming home to your feline friend after a hard day at the office or a long tiring trip. But while you would recognise your cat anywhere, how does your four-legged friend know who you are? Dogs seem to instantly recognise their owners, while cats seem to remain more aloof.

But if you think your cat isn't bothered about your return or perhaps hasn't realised who you are, think again. John Bradshaw, author and cat behaviour expert at the University of Bristol, believes most cat owners underestimate just how clever their feline friends are. Unlike their canine siblings, cats are simply not as keen to show their owners what they have learned.

Do cats recognise the owner?

The good news is that yes, cats do recognise their owners. But while you may rely on your sight to recognise people you know, your cat will depend on their other senses, especially their sense of smell. Just like a fingerprint, we each have our own individual smell. Cats will use our unique scent to recognise us, even among other people. Over time, your cat has learned your distinctive smell, combined with your physical appearance and tone of voice, so when they rub against your legs, they know exactly which member of the household you are.

Do cats recognise their owners after years apart?

While it's impossible to put an exact time on how long a cat's memory can go back to, it's believed that a cat's long term memory is indefinite. There are many stories of cats recognising people many years later. A cat will smell the person it hasn't seen for years, and the memory of who that individual is will come back to them.

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How long will a cat remember its owner?

Cats, on average, have around 16 hours of short term memory. This means that if you meet a cat for the first time and have just one interaction, they will likely remember you 16 hours later. However, there is no specific time frame for a cat's long term memory, which means a cat can recognise someone they are familiar with for years.

Can cats recognise their owners' faces?

Cats don't tend to rely on looks to recognise their owners and instead use their other senses such as sounds and smell to identify their humans. However, researchers at the University of Michigan have found that cats can recognise individual human faces faster and more accurately than a supercomputer. But the way cats remember different faces is just not in the same way we do. Cats recognise their owners based on their face, voice, smell and behaviour. Cats can become so finely tuned to how they perceive your specific identify that if you change your appearance, behaviour or smell, it could cause them anxiety.

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Do cats recognise human voices? 

When your cat doesn't respond to you calling them, it's not because they don't recognise your voice. They are probably just ignoring you. Cats are very tuned into our voices. A study by the University of Tokyo found that cats can distinguish between their owners' voices from a stranger's. The cats in the study tended to ignore recordings of strangers calling their names but responded by twitching their ears when they heard their owner's voices.

Can cats recognise their owners' scent?

Cats most rely on scent to understand the world. So it makes sense that your feline friend would use it to recognise their owner as well as other animals. Cats use their sense of smell to gather information about the world around them, including us. So when your cat comes over and gives you a sniff, they are probably just checking that it is really you.

How cats choose their owner

Most things that cats do are on their terms, so it's not surprising that they pretty much domesticated themselves. Cats learned that humans were excellent food sources and realised it was beneficial for them to stick close to them. Cats moved into villages to chase rats and steal stored grain before eventually being taken into people's homes.

But believe it or not, to your cat, you are more than just a source of food. A study published by Oregon State University reveals that cats look to their owners for comfort and security. Cats form attachments to their owners, similar to those developed by dogs and babies with their caregivers and will pick their favourite person based on things like personality and who is more likely to give them attention and food.

Just adopted your first cat? Find out everything you need to know as a first-time cat owner.

The good news is that whether you've been away from your cat for a day, a week, a month or even a year, your feline friend will recognise you, even if they don't show it.

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