We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

How Do Cats Recognize Their Owners?

Your cat might get excited when you enter your home or run away if a stranger does the same. So, can science prove that cats recognize their owners?

By Alisa Bowman
Nov 22, 2023 4:00 PM
Young woman resting with pet in sofa at home in sunny. Beautiful ginger tabby cat. Animals and lifestyle concept.
(Credit: U__Photo/Shutterstock)


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

When parents arrive at a daycare at the end of the day, their human toddlers often race into their arms while joyfully screaming, “Mommy!” or “Daddy!” That’s how parents know their kids recognize them.

Cats, on the other hand, can be much harder to read. Do they really know the difference between you and your neighbor?

Do Cats Recognize Their Owners?

(Credit: Anastasiya Tsiasemnikava/ Shutterstock)

For many cat owners, the answer to this question is a big fat “duh! Of course, my cat knows me!”

For example, when Brette McWhorter Sember comes home, her cat named Puffy meows loudly. However, when strangers walk into the house, her cat hides. Puffy also treats Sember differently than her husband.

“He sticks close to me all day, and if he gets separated from me, he calls out to find out where I am,” Sember says. “He knows my entire routine and is always waiting for the next thing. He doesn’t do any of this with my husband.”

Other cat owners share similar stories. They mention that a cat only offers gifts to one family member — and not others. Or, they’ll tell you their cat waits at the door for their return. Their cat might welcome them with loud purrs and excited floor rolls. However, if an unfamiliar person enters, the same cat will coldly walk away, hide, or even hiss loud disapproval.

Read More: 7 Fascinating Wild Felines That Just Might Make You a Cat Person

Can Science Prove Cats Know Their Owners?

Science, however, has taken many years to catch up to what many cat owners have long suspected.

“We can’t ask cats directly whether they recognize or remember us, so we have to infer the answer from their physiology and behavior,” says Mikel Delgado, a certified applied animal behaviorist and owner of Feline Minds, a cat consulting company in Northern California.

Over the years, scientists have designed thoughtful experiments to test these inferences. In one study, researchers watched how cats reacted to hearing their owner versus a stranger call their name. Most of the cats responded more intensely to their owner’s voice.

In another study, researchers played recordings of owners and strangers saying things like, “Do you want to play?” and, “How are you?” When strangers uttered the same sentences, cats didn’t respond. However, the cats became alert at the sound of their owner’s voice. They stopped whatever they were doing and moved toward the sound.

According to these experiments, cats do seem to remember the unique pitch, timbre, and volume of their owner’s voice.

Read More: Why Do Cats Love Boxes So Much?

How Do Cats Know You’re Their Owner?

(Credit: Magui RF/Shutterstock)

(Original) However, cats likely use other clues as well. For example, your cat probably knows your unique physical form (size and shape) — and how it differs from your spouse’s, child’s, or any given stranger’s.

***Your cat probably knows your unique physical form (size and shape) — and how it differs from your spouse’s, child’s, or any given stranger’s.

“Your unique scent also plays a role,” says Delgado.

Thanks to an incredible sense of smell, your cat likely knows the difference between you and other humans who live in the same house — and especially between you and your neighbor from down the street. Cats can even tell if their feline housemates have been to the vet — because their aroma will have changed.

This entire package — the sound of your voice, the odor of your body, and your appearance — helps your cat to sort “Yay! That person who feeds me has returned!” from “Who the heck is that?! Time to scram!”

Read More: How Cats Purr: Understanding Those Adorable, Vibrating Noises

Do Cats Treat People Differently?

You may wonder: What if your cat loves everyone? Maybe they greet every single two-legged creature with loud purrs and head bunts. Does that mean your cat can’t differentiate between you and other humans?

Not necessarily, says Delgado.

It’s more likely that your cat is amiable and curious. You or someone else probably did a fantastic job socializing your cat during your cat’s first two to seven weeks of life.

If you’re still not sure if your cat knows you, it’s worth trying to see things from another perspective.

“People worry too much about what their cat thinks about them,” says Delgado. “Instead, they should be worrying more about whether they are providing their cat with a healthy environment that allows them to express natural behaviors like climbing, scratching, hiding, resting, and eliminating. Give your cat mental stimulation. Play with them and handle them respectfully. That way, you’ll have a great relationship with your cat even if they are straight out of the movie Memento.”

Read More: Cats Ruled These 4 Ancient Civilizations

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.