Vet Q&A: Do pets recognise people?

by PDSA Vets | 1 October 2020 #VetQ&As

Whether you need to leave your pet with someone else while you’re on holiday, are heading off to uni, or your pet goes missing and you’re reunited, you might be wondering if your four-legged friend will still recognise you when you see them again.

We’ve all seen heart-warming stories when owners are happily reunited with their lost pets. We even recently had a success story of our own when we were able to reunite a lost cat with their owner after they’d been missing for three years!

But one thing you might be wondering is, does my pet actually recognise me? Maybe you’re unsure if your pet will know you after you’ve been separated for a while, or you have a really friendly pet who doesn’t seem to treat you any differently from everyone else! Studies have shown pets have a really good memory and they can recognise you - just not always in the ways you might think.


Scent and sound

Dogs and cats mostly rely on scent and sound to understand the world, so it makes sense that they use these to recognise people as well as other animals.

Dogs in particular are experts at telling us apart by the way we smell, and there have been studies done in the past to show that they recognise our smell even when we’re not actually there, so they must remember us!

Another way our pets know us is from the way we sound. Dogs and cats have sensitive hearing and can tell the difference between their owner’s voice and that of another person (that doesn’t mean they’ll always listen to you, though!).

Dogs not only understand specific words or commands but also recognise people by their individual voices. And it’s been found that cats will recognise and respond to their owner’s voices - although it might not always feel like it when your cat ignores you at home!

So both scent and sound play big roles in how dogs and cats recognise you.


Does my pet recognise my face?

Cats don’t tend to rely on the way we look to recognise us, preferring to use their other senses to identify us (such as smells and sounds).

Dogs, on the other hand, do recognise our faces and expressions. They were domesticated way before cats were and so have evolved alongside us for far longer than our feline friends, adapting to understand the human way of communicating, which relies much more on facial expressions than most animals do. They’ve learnt to look at human faces for communication clues and can even tell how we’re are feeling by how we look!

Dogs are also able to identify individual people from their facial features and can even recognise their owner in a photograph. So for dogs, yes, they are likely to recognise your face!


Does my pet remember me?

It’s one thing to recognise you, but you might also be wondering if your pet remembers you, especially if you have been separated for any reason.

Our pets have pretty good memories (it’s how they’re so good at learning our routines and certain words such as “T-R-E-A-T” or "W-A-L-K-I-E-S"). However, there’s not a lot of evidence to say whether our pets actually remember us in the way we think of remembering someone, or whether they just recognise us and are happy to see us. A big factor when thinking about our pets’ memory is that dogs and cats don’t seem to see time in the same way as we do, they live in the present with little concept of 'past' or 'future'. So it may be that for them ‘remembering us’ or ‘recognising us’ is one in the same.

Either way, it’s likely that your pet will always recognise you even if you’re separated for a little while. Take it from us – we see a lot of wagging tails and happy cats when they’re reunited with their owners after a visit to the vet!

Remember to microchip your furry friend, and keep your details updated so if they ever do go missing you’re more likely to be reunited. Find out more about microchipping.

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