—Feline Behavior Specialist 🇺🇸
Before we dive into what cats think of humans, it’s fair to say, we don’t have all the answers yet. We have a lot of assumptions, but there’s so much more research we need on the human-cat relationship.
I’ll talk about what we think we know, and relate it to what I’ve seen over many years of watching their behavior.
Cats Look at Us Like Other Cats
Cats like to view us as cats. Even though we’re much bigger than their furry family members, they still knead, groom, play with, and rub against us, just like they do with other cats.
Ever have a cat try to wrestle your hand and it actually hurts? They aren’t trying to hurt you, but they’re playing with you just like they would with another cat.
At the same time, I’ve had cats try to paw at me to play without drawing their claws, or nip without actually biting. It reminds me of how kittens play with each other in the very beginning – extremely gently. This makes me think in some circumstances they don’t feel the need to apply much pressure with their claws or mouth and know that we are a bit “different.”
Cats Think We’re Mother-like
Cats usually build the strongest and most secure bond with the person who feeds, plays with, pets, and nurtures them, like a cat’s mother would.
There is a bit of debate on this, but it appears they don’t think we’re actually their mother (my bet is they can tell from pheromones), but that they treat us similarly because of how we take care of them.
Humans can have a maternal relationship with someone who isn’t their blood-related mother, and I think that’s the best way to think of it.
One study in 2019 found that cats are just as attached to humans as babies are. Here again, the role of the caregiver helps develop this relationship. It also goes to show that cats are social and do care about their owners.
I have one cat who seems to get depressed when I go away. Although she normally eats all her food, pet sitters often text me, “Lucy isn’t eating.”
She was neglected in her previous home, and I think we’ve developed a trusting relationship. I think when I leave, it throws her off and gives her anxiety because the sure thing that she associates safety with (me) is missing. She does, however, quickly adjust to the pet sitter, and normally will eat after a day. Change is just hard for her.
Cats Recognize Some Human Social Cues
When it comes to social cues, cats can read some of our cues. Cats will look when we point at something, and like domestic dogs and horses, domestic cats are able to recognize human emotions.
Domestic animals that live alongside humans develop this adaptation because it helps them survive and live in their social groups. Since cats were recently domesticated, especially compared to dogs, we can expect them to continue to improve at this.
My cat Vito, who passed in 2020, was extremely tied to my emotions. If I was sad, he would snuggle with me. If I was sick, he’d lay on what hurt. I’ll never forget the day I put him to sleep, I was obviously devastated. He had no idea what was going to happen but he snuggled me the entire afternoon until the mobile vet arrived at my house. This was particularly impressive because he had been a bit out of it the days before. I was glad we were able to share that afternoon together.
Cats Know Their Owners—But Maybe Not How Strangers Treat Us
In addition to being more relaxed around their owners, cats are also more likely to respond when their owners call their names (though sometimes they choose to ignore us). Even when strangers call their names, they recognize it, showing they do in fact know their names.
There is a difference between the two though—they respond more strongly when their owner is calling them over a stranger. This is also seen in other studies. When an owner is involved, the cat responds better, showing there is a clear bond between us and them.
One area that seems lacking is that cats don’t fully seem to understand our relationships with other humans.
Whereas dogs will not take food from a person who didn’t help their owner with a task, a cat doesn’t care and will take food from them. This is likely related to evolution and the fact that cats are solitary hunters, meaning they’re less socially aware to start than canines who are pack animals and need to be aware of social cues even to survive among their own kind.
Cats act very independently of others around them, so they probably don’t notice how we’re treating each other, especially if an intense human emotion (like anger, which they recognize) isn’t involved.
Even though it makes sense why a cat wouldn’t recognize how a stranger was treating us, I do think they pick up on small things about a person’s energy.
I’ve watched cats keep their distance from people who weren’t fond of cats, or from people who tend to be more on the negative side.
I’ve also seen completely friendly cats keep their distance from certain people for seemingly no reason. I think they pick up on certain aspects of how a person is carrying themself, and if they don’t like it, they don’t want to interact with that person.
Cats Trained Us
Cats don’t meow at each other, so why do they meow at us? They’ve figured out if they meow at a frequency that’s similar to a baby crying, we respond. This is pretty remarkable and smart on their part.
Also, we’re mostly vocal communicators (cats communicate with scent and body language), and it’s impressive that cats realize they can communicate vocally with us, but still use non-verbal cues with other cats.
I have an extremely vocal cat named Dolly, and I always joke about our conversations. We go back and forth, and I ask her questions just like she’s a person. She always meows back.
I started videoing these interactions and posting them on social media. They’re a big hit! Clearly, by talking back to her I’m encouraging her to meow at me, but it’s just a very endearing part of her personality. As long as she doesn’t do it at 2 a.m., I don’t mind.
Now you know, your cat thinks of you kind of like a mother and is sensitive to your emotions and some of your social cues.
While they know their name, they may not always come when called, sort of like a child ignoring their parents. They’re also just as attached to you as a human baby would be. And when they want your attention, they know to meow to get it.
We still have a lot to learn about the human-cat relationship, but we have done enough research to say, they are not oblivious and aloof, and they do care about you, just like you undoubtedly care about them.
Boyle, Ali. Inverse, How Do Cats Think? Study Uncovers Surprising Behavior.
Quaranta, A., D’Ingeo, S., Amoruso, R., Siniscalchi, M., 2020. MDPI, Emotion Recognition in Cats.
O’Kane, Caitlin. CBS News, Cats Actually Do Get Attached to Their Owners, Study Says.
Healthy Paws, Does My Cat Think I’m Its Mother?
Lock, Samantha. Newsweek, Do Cats Know Their Names?
Article by Elizabeth Italia 🙋♀️
Cat Behavior & Fostering Specialist