Your Cat Is Tracking You (probably not in a creepy way…)

06 Dec Your Cat Is Tracking You (probably not in a creepy way…)

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 6.12.21


On a pretty regular basis I will read about a fancy piece of research reported in what I still call “the newspaper” (by which I mean a reputable source on my phone) and I think, Yeah, I could have told them that.

Not in a smug way, more in an affirming way – like, if their scientific deductions tally with my lived experience, then they’re probably onto something, well done.

Recently, for example, The Guardian ran a story about how cats are brainier than we think, and let me tell you this absolutely resonates with what I’m observing round my house with our cat, Satchmo.

First, meet Satchmo, our nine-year-old black and white rescue cat, named after legendary jazz musician, Louis Armstrong. Our Satchmo (the name is a derivation of “satchel mouth”, a reference to how Mr Armstrong’s cheeks looked when blowing the trumpet) doesn’t play any instruments but he is a very cool cat with an unmistakeable jazz vibe.

Shortly before stumbling across the Guardian report from the University of Kyoto about smart cats, I’d been regaling my husband with news of Satchmo’s latest cleverness. Despite (or because of?) spending his first months in a rubbish dump, Satchmo has developed refined tastes, including a preference for filtered water.

Of late, he has taken to sitting at the apex between his water bowl outside and me in the kitchen, looking from me to the bowl and back again until I open the door and freshen his supply. Clever, right? Superb communication skills.

Of course, as soon as I’d reported this, I turned back to see that Satchmo was lapping up water from the guttering of the sliding door. You can take the cat out of the rubbish dump…

Still, I’m not a scientist and the people at the University of Kyoto are. What they’ve uncovered is that cats use a type of socio-spatial cognition to track their humans, so they know where we are at all times. It’s an understanding of “object permanence”, meaning cats can do what human babies work out in the first year of life – that even when you stop seeing something (the doll, the mother) you know it still exists.

They put 50 cats in a room – separately, not together, are you mad? – and played a recording of their owner (staff) calling them from outside the room on the right. Then suddenly they played their owner’s voice from a speaker inside the room on the left – and each cat was visibly startled at the possibility their person had teleported into the room. This business of picturing you even when they can’t see you suggests high cognitive processes.

Like I say, I could have told them this. Satchmo constantly pictures things he cannot see currently in his bowl. He knows the cat treats are somewhere – specifically they are in the pantry, third shelf up, on the left, next to the almonds mummy has in a bag that makes exactly the same noise when it’s being opened so he comes running and we both have a treat because otherwise he has some special sad eyes he can stare at you with for a long time.

Since we’ve been constantly home since August, I’ve noticed that what our cat is currently using this human tracking skill for is to get away from us. Never a lap-cat, he was usually a “near-by” cat, slipping into my office while I was working or climbing onto our bed in the night. Now he is deftly placing himself in whatever room we are not in. Clever boy.