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Do Dogs and Cats Recognize their Owners? The Many Ways Pets Tell Us Apart

Boston Terrier, smiling while looking up at camera

Dogs and cats have many cues to help them recognize us. Learn about all the different ways our pets know who we are.

 
When you watch your dog bounding across the dog park, or when you see your cat perched atop her scratching post, you recognize your pet by her shape, the color of her coat, and the way she moves. You may find yourself wondering, “Does my cat know me?” or, “Can my dog tell me apart from everyone else?” Our pets certainly know who we are, but they often know us in ways that humans, with our different set of senses, can only imagine: scent, sound, and subtle cues of movement and touch.

 

Your Pup’s Perception: Scent

Dogs are experts at telling people apart. A trained trailing dog can follow a complete stranger’s scent for miles, and he can tell that person’s scent apart from others. Dogs can even sniff out the differences between identical twins.

 
Bearing this in mind, it’s not surprising that your dog can also remember your scent when you aren’t around, according to a study published in a recent issue of Behavioral Processes. Scientists trained a group of dogs to sit while in an MRI machine and then individually recorded their brain activity as they reacted to the scents of people and dogs who weren’t present. These included a strange dog, a dog with whom they lived, a strange person, and a person with whom they lived — excluding their owners, since the owners had to act as handlers while the dogs were in the MRI.

 
The dogs exhibited greater brain activity for familiar people than for any other scent, even familiar dogs. Not only do dogs recognize and remember their humans’ scents, but they also get more excited about a whiff of “their” humans than about anything else.

 

Recognizing Faces by Sight

We tend to think that dogs depend on their noses to find and recognize everything in their world, including people, but it turns out that they’re also very good at using their eyes. Dogs evolved to read human behavior and expressions as a result of their canine ancestors, who received warm places to sleep around human campfires by making people happy. To succeed at a survival strategy based on making another species happy, you need to develop a knack for reading expressions and body language — and that’s just what dogs have done.

 
A study led by Paolo Mongillo at the University of Padua in Italy in 2010 found that dogs can pick their owners out of a crowd by recognizing their faces. When dogs watched their owners and random strangers walk back and forth in a room, the dogs paid much more attention their owners than to the strangers. When both humans wore masks over their faces, however, the dogs had difficulty telling them apart and seemed to pay about the same amount of attention to both people.

 

Believe It or Not, Cats Do Care

If you’ve ever asked yourself, “Does my cat know me?” you can rest assured: your cat knows you. In fact, she may even know you better than you know yourself. Animal behavior experts and pet owners have both observed that cats learn their human housemates’ habits. They know who handles the morning feeding, who carries a bag of treats in her pocket, and who knows just the right place to scratch. They’re also skilled at figuring out which sounds and actions will elicit certain desired responses from humans.

 
Cats probably aren’t looking at us to tell us apart, though. Human faces may all look pretty similar to cats, according to a 2005 study by researchers from Pennsylvania State University and the University of Texas at Dallas. When shown pictures of human faces, cats could tell their handler apart from a stranger about 54 percent of the time. The cats in the study were much better at recognizing other cats’ faces, however, which they did successfully about 91 percent of the time.

 

Acknowledging Your Voice

Some experts have speculated that human faces just aren’t as important to cats. Unlike dogs, cats joined human society on their own terms. Rodents came to human villages to eat grain stored there, and cats came to hunt the rodents. Cats never needed to read human gestures and expressions in the same way that dogs did and, as a result, they may not have developed the same understanding of human faces.

 
It’s more likely that cats recognize us in other ways, like scent, touch, and sound. A 2013 study by scientists at the University of Tokyo found that cats can tell recordings of their owners’ voices apart from strangers’ voices. The cats in the study mostly ignored the recordings of strangers calling their names but twitched their ears to listen more closely to their owners’ voices. Of course, none of the cats in the study actually got up to look for their absent owners, because cats know better than to give up a good napping spot.

 

The Joy of Being Recognized

The next time you greet your cat after a long day at work or call your dog from across the dog park, enjoy the certainty that your pet knows exactly who you are. Take a moment to marvel at how differently your pet sees the world. There is something wonderful about being recognized and loved by a cat or dog.

 

 

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