Don't Freak Out or Anything, But Your Cat Is Tracking Your Movements

Your cat is lying on your lap purring in deep, soothing contentment. You get up and leave the room. What's your cat thinking right now?
It's possible that it is now using some mental energy to track your movements, and these thoughts are not just idle.

According to new research, your cat may be mapping your spatial position on some level of consciousness based on audio clues from the environment.

These insights into the whereabouts and activities of others are part of socio-spatial cognition. Animals keep mental tabs on the inferred location of other members of a group even though they're not physically present.

It is not clear how well-developed this ability in cats is. Scientists in Japan carried out a fascinating experiment to discover the phenomenon.

Researchers from Kyoto University tested the ability to set up a cat in a familiar environment. They did this with several domestic cats, including both house cats and cat cafe cats. They placed a Bluetooth speaker in the room and another speaker outside.

They then tried out several combinations of sound and location tests to test the cats' socio-spatial skills. One of the most striking recordings was made of the cat's owner speaking from one speaker, while the other recording was played just a few seconds later.

Researchers write that "Results showed cats were surprised when their owners appeared to be being teleported to a new, unanticipated location." They also note that familiar cat vocalizations and electronic sounds did not trigger the same reaction in the animals.

These results indicate that cats have a mental representation (or map) of their owner. They also map the location of the owner from the owner's voice. This is evidence of socio-spatial cognition.

Researchers don't know if the cat's surprise at the presence of the owner in an unexpected place or if they were simply surprised by their absence from the expected spot.

Future "impossible Teleportation" experiments may be able help clarify that.

"Our findings that cats can mentally map the location of their owners using their voice correspond at most to visible displacement in object permanence," says Dr. Judith. Researchers write that further studies on invisible displacement may benefit from the use of auditory stimuli. Similar research could also be done on other species.

"Mentally representing and manipulating the outside world is an important feature of complex thinking and fundamental part of cognition.

We know for now that they are following us.

These findings are published in PLOS One.