Sometimes My Cat Doesn’t Recognize Me

My cat, Gabriel, doesn’t recognize me, initially, when we are both in a room of the apartment with which he does not associate me. Then he’ll smell me, after which, he’ll recognize me and associate the place with me. What is going on, and what do I mean by being associated with a certain room?

Cat does not recognise owner

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I spend a lot of time with him in the main bedroom and the living room. When I am in bed or sitting in a certain chair in one of these rooms he’ll immediately recognize me. If this is not the case, he is more cautious, initially.

This implies that cats recognize people partly by the circumstances under which they find themselves. We become part of the whole and whether we are judged as friendly depends on whether the cat recognizes the whole scene and remembers it as non-hostile.

That is how I read this behavior. It is interesting also that when he comes into the kitchen to eat he does not see the new food in the bowl. I have to point to it and he’ll only use his sense of smell to find food in the kitchen. This is from a few feet away.

I don’t believe this is significant but it may indicate an eyesight problem, which may be linked to what I have described as his way of recognizing me.

However, I have a feeling that all cats recognize a person as friendly or not partly based on the circumstances and environment in which they find us.

If I am correct, why should this be?

Well, I am not sure. However, I believe it is linked to hard-wired behavior concerning home range and territory. The cat has a good memory for his territory. He can spot changes and strangers within the territory. The memory is: stranger + my territory = trouble.

There is a natural link between the environment and who is in it. This linkage between animal and the background results in the cat less able to isolate the animal or person from the background.

However, over time a domestic cat associates the whole home with his/her cat caretaker and therefore the condition fades.

As Gabriel had a semi-feral early life he may be more sensitive to friendly versus hostile animals and so this interesting behaviour is more pronounced.

This is just a theory. Have you experienced this?

24 thoughts on “Sometimes My Cat Doesn’t Recognize Me”

  1. Monty encountered just the problem situation you described a few weeks ago– a stranger in his territory. He chased the other cat away.

    When I came out the other cat was up a tree next to the fence, Monty hanging on nearer the base of the tree. The top cat jumped over the fence at my approach. Both cats were black. The cat near the base of the tree jumped down and attacked me, hissing and growling. I had jeans on so he didn’t hurt my legs when he attacked. He mostly got my shoes. He started making strange moaning, howling meows I’d never heard from Monty. If I approached he snarled.

    So was the cat before me Monty or did Monty go over the fence, something he’s never done before? The cat was all puffed, seemed wild and was fearful and aggressive toward me. He did not recognize me. I wasn’t sure if I recognized him.

    I walked to the house and called out “treat” and eventually he approached and cautiously came in. I still wasn’t sure. A stray cat once used to humans might enter a house. But then he ran right for Monty’s room where he gets fed. Ok, only Monty would expect to be fed there.

    So in that situation, for awhile, neither of us recognized the other. It was weird.

    I realized later that Monty would not jump over the fence at my approach and a stray cat would flee, not attack me. Also, no cat left to his own devices would be as fat as Monty is. The girth of the lower cat alone was the clue.

    But he was Monty and yet he wasn’t in that moment. He was wild toward me. Until he got his treat. Then it was all as if nothing had happened.

    • This is a nice story Ruth which shows how domestic cats can almost throw a switch and become wild again. They revert to wild cat tendencies quite easily. There seems to be a default defensive status which the domestic reverts to when he/she is unsure. It shows us once again that the world the cat lives in – from the cat’s perspective – is very different to the world we see and feel.

  2. I never had any reason to believe that cats relied on sight in deciphering if we are friend or foe at all.

    I believe that they rely on scent and, possibly, voice.
    I think it can become very confusing when they are out of their element. Hearing us may cause anxiety. I think that they have a need to know that we are “staying put”. We are their stability and they want us in familiar places.

    • Totally agree with you Dee that cats recognise friends/foe more by scent than by eyesight. (Explains the hostile reception many cats get from other cats in the home when they arrive back from the vets smelling different.)

      They certain rely strongly on sound too for identification purposes. When I looked after the colony of stray/feral cats in Cyprus they recognised the sound of my car engine or the jangling of my door keys as the dinner bell being rung. My own cat Sophie disliked the lady who lived in the apartment below us and I knew when she’d returned home (whether on foot or by car) because Sophie would start growling (lol).

      I’ve always understood their vision is not best suited to daytime or bright lights and the placement of their eyes means they literally cannot see what’s right under their nose.

      • So true, Michele
        My closest ferals know the sound of my car, and the others know the rustling of my bags coming near. I’m positive that they smell me and know my voice.
        Boozer, my lookout, especially, knows everything about me. I think it’s his job.

        • I think they also recognise the sound of our footsteps too. I used to test this theory sometimes by walking into the car park without uttering a sound and they would come running from the fields behind the apartments.

          Cats living rough use a lot more of their natural skills to survive than our pets who have an easy life.

          • Yes nice point Michele. Footsteps are a form of recognition and they are generally frightening I find. I walk near him slowly and gently. We are enormous of course compared to a kitten, which immediately puts the cautious cat on the back foot and in a defensive mentality.

        • My ferals at work come running right up to my feet and then change their mind and run to the picnic table where we feed them. I feed them 2 cups of food every 2 hours so they know when they see me come outside they get to eat again. I wish one of them would forget to be afraid and come all the way up to me. I can pet 2 of them but the rest are skittish.

  3. You should have seen Sealy in the first months. He’d eventually come to the front of his cage and if we walked over to get him out he’d run to the back like he’d changed his mind. And he still enjoys walking the counters and “finding” food. We always leave a few bites of veggies in the pan for him. Its likely the way he had to feed to survive when he was a feral.

    Even after 3 years I have to be careful not to stare at our Renny or he’ll run under the bed and hide like he did in the beginning.

  4. Indeed. Marvin is a cat who I can have my way with in any shape or form. Born feral, he is a complete sweetie as a domestic cat, and a fine companion. However, I sometimes see him in my elderly neighbor’s yard when delivering something yummy to her. He recognizes my voice when I call, but freaks if I walk towards him, as if I was a stranger. He eventually follows me home, calling me loudly once we get to his home territory. I don’t think I could pick him up if I found him away from home. He wouldn’t let me. I have attributed it to his eyesight, but it is probably more than that, as you suggest.


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