Do cats recognize their family?

Do cats recognize their family?

Cats have surprisingly good memories. They can recall locations, people and other animals far more accurately than you’d think. Whether it’s that crack in the skirting board that mice sometimes sneak in and out of, the cupboard where you stash their treats, the smell of a familiar fellow cat or the face and voice of their favourite human, a cat’s recall can be surprisingly accurate.

Do cats recognize their family? Yes, cats can recognise familiar individuals including litter-mates and other family members. They’re also pretty good at recognising their human families based on various cues including sight, smell and hearing.

If you’ve found your way to this page, it’s because you have questions about your cat or cats in general. You’re curious to know more about how a cat’s memory works and what feline family ties might look like. Fortunately, you’ve come to the right place. Just read on to learn more about cats and their ability to recall individuals.

Cats and memory

Do cats recognize their family? It’s an interesting question which doesn’t really have a simple answer. Feline memory can be rather startling in its accuracy but is rather specialised. It’s certainly true that cats from the same litter or family group can recognise each other as known individuals. It’s also true that cats learn to recognise human caregivers and pets from the same household — their adoptive family. That said, cats probably don’t understand family ties the way we do or the way that some other social animals appear to. They just know that some individuals are familiar and some are not; they know “strange cat” and “cat that smells like the cats I usually associate with” but don’t know “mother” or “sibling.”

A cat’s recognition works differently to a human’s; as well as the visual component, cats rely heavily on sound and most especially on their sense of smell when identifying familiar individuals. Cat families and multi-family colony groups scent-mark each other repeatedly so that they’ll all have a shared and recognisable scent, marking them as part of a particular group. This shared scent allows all the members of the group to recognise and identify each other. (The familiar facial rubbing of a cat against one’s legs or against objects such as furniture is down to this scent-marking behaviour — your cat is using glands around her mouth to mark the table as part of her territory and you as part of her tribe.) Cats recognise human voices and seem to respond most strongly to the voices of the people they spend a lot of time with.

How do cats recognise each other?

The chief sense at work here seems to be a smell. When a cat is first born, smell, taste and touch are the only senses they truly possess. The newborn kitten’s eyes aren’t merely closed, they actually haven’t finished developing yet. Similarly, the kitten’s ears have hardly begun to receive sounds. Their sense of smell, however, is already quite keen. They can identify their mother or other female caretaker and can even locate and latch onto a preferred nipple using scent alone.

As the cat gets older the other senses develop more fully but the smell never loses its primacy in recognition. The influence of smell is so powerful that I’ve seen cats fail to recognise one of their fellows after a trip to the vet. The cat returned carrying so many unfamiliar smells that his normally friendly housemates were suspicious and even angry when he appeared, thinking that a strange cat had been placed in their midst. Many cat owners have a similar story and research bears this type of anecdote out. Cats actively require smell to recognise each other. Smell helps cats to identify familiar humans, too. Perhaps because we smell so odd to them, though, they also seem to respond to other cues such as auditory and visual information.

Can cats remember their siblings?

It’s hard to say. Much depends on when they were separated and how long for. Cats from the same litter may have a similar smell and can sometimes respond more favourably to a former littermate than to a cat they’ve never met, even if they were split up as babies. This isn’t a certainty by any means — in many cases, reunited siblings who were separated in kittenhood won’t even have a glimmer of recognition and will behave just as they would towards a strange cat. Cats from the same litter who were homed and raised together will have built up more familiarity and established some social ties. If cats like these are separated, one or both of them may pine and exhibit distress at the absence of their sibling.

It’s unclear whether this has anything to do with their familial connection, however. I’ve seen pining and distress in cats who were separated from an unrelated cat with whom they’d bonded: calling for the missing friend, searching the house, engaging in unusual destructive acts. Indeed, the same response has cropped up when the missing “family member” was actually a small Havanese terrier. They may remember something; whether it’s precisely siblinghood is another matter.

Can cats remember their children or parents?

Again, it’s unclear. Tom cats don’t often bond with their kittens in the first place; there are exceptions but even if the kittens’ father is around he may not be very interested in them. I’ve seen mother cats sink into a bit of a melancholy mood when separated from the last kittens in a litter, although in every case the kittens were fully weaned and the relationship had sometimes become rather strained. When reintroduced to grown-up kittens, I think every female cat I’ve known has responded in the same way: utter obliviousness, clearly regarding the younger cat as a stranger. They may be quicker to accept an ex-kitten as a friend and housemate but I’ve never seen even a glimmer of maternal affection once the kittens have moved on.

Mother and child cats who aren’t separated often do very well together but I think that’s more down to an established familiarity and settled social roles than the magic of the familial bond. I don’t think I’ve seen grown-up kittens recognise their parents, either, although I’ve heard anecdotes from other cat fanciers who swear this has happened. Parents and children who have retained a familiar smell may be treated more cordially than other cats but this isn’t guaranteed. The presence of a long-term ongoing bond seems more important to recognition than whether this new cat used to be your kitten or not.

Do cats recognise their human family?

As mentioned above, cats seem to be quite good at recognising their favourite humans, even after a long break. While feline intelligence isn’t completely understood yet, both research and anecdotal evidence suggest that cats can recognise various individuals even when they’ve had a long spell apart. There’s some debate as to whether the cat is actually recognising a human after some period of separation, or simply responding favourably to that human’s friendly overtures. I’d lean towards the latter, myself; I´ve seen fairly aloof cats become positively effusive when reunited with a beloved human caregiver after some time. It’s only a personal theory but I suspect this preservation of memory might be a survival instinct.

After all, large, non-cat animals can be a serious threat to cats so it’s important to know if the individual at hand is a friendly food-donor or potential predator. It seems reasonable to surmise that domestic cats would, therefore, have the ability to recall enough about the humans they bond with to recognise them after a long period. Cats seem to rely only partly on smell to identify humans and lean more heavily on other information than they do when identifying fellow cats. They seem to notice items of clothing, faces and most especially voices.

Can my cats recognise me?

They probably do, yes. Hearing the voice of an absent owner, whether over the phone, voice chat or as a recording, can often settle a cat who’s pining for their preferred human family. (On the flip side, I’ve encountered abused and neglected cats who would flee in terror from anyone who reminded them of their abusers.) Once your cats have bonded with you and become familiar with your face, the clothes you generally wear, your smell and most especially your voice, they will be able to recognise you and distinguish you from other humans. I remember cat-sitting for a friend while they were abroad and being given the cold shoulder by his normally sociable cats because I wasn’t their special person.

On one occasion I was sitting at my friend’s computer wearing a pair of trousers similar to the ones he normally wore and suddenly heard a thunder of feet as one of the cats raced into the room. She’d seen a pair of legs that looked like her owner’s and thought he’d returned. When she realised it was only me she went and hid under the sofa to sulk. Cats know who their friends and acquaintances are; when they form attachments, whether to a family member, an adoptive family member or a human caregiver, they could probably recognise their favourite friends anywhere.

Barbara Read

Barbara Read - Cat owner, researcher and behavioural expert. Cats are not only fantastic pets but also wonderful and complex animals with great personalities. It takes time and effort to learn their behaviour but its completely worth it.

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