I spend a lot of time thinking about the bizarre life choice I’ve made to keep a small, furry, mid-level predator around my house. I feed it and dispose of its poop and allow it to stay in my apartment rent-free in exchange for, I guess, fun? It is a funny animal that makes strange faces and performs amusing behaviors and sometimes snuggles with me or misses me when I’m gone, which is nice. The other side of the relationship is just as perplexing: What does the cat think I am? It’s an impenetrable question, because the cat, that idiot, doesn’t speak English, but I can’t help but wonder how the cat sees me. As a kitten? A sibling? A parent? A food-and-head-scratches dispenser? It’s not an easy question to answer, but after talking to several cat experts, who are not as weird as you’d think, I think I’ve assembled some semblance of one.
To understand how cats see us, we have to understand how cats think, and, more importantly, how cats behave in social situations. People tend to assume cats are solitary animals, I think because they seem more aloof and willing to spend time alone than dogs do. But cats are not solitary at all. “They clearly can’t be, because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to keep them in our homes, they’d just run away,” according to John Bradshaw, the author of Cat Sense and one of the few scientists who’s actively studying social cat behavior (when he can find funding for it, anyway). The difficulty with studying cat social behavior is that the cat’s wild ancestor, the northernmost populations of the African Wildcat, basically doesn’t exist anymore; African Wildcats are so thoroughly interbred with domestic cats that Bradshaw says it’s likely impossible to find a purebred African Wildcat.
Luckily, we can study feral cat populations. Feral cat colonies are not runaways or strays; they’re cats that were born and exist without direct human intervention. (Feral cat colonies almost always exist thanks to unintentional human intervention — in barns where there are mice, say, or in cities where there’s delicious garbage and rats around.) And by comparing feral cat behavior to that of housecats, we can kind of get an idea of how the cat sees its owner.
A cat colony springs up in a place where there’s enough food to support multiple cats, and safe spaces where the cat can rest and breed — cats are mid-level predators, meaning they both prey on animals and are preyed upon, by animals like coyotes, foxes, and even birds of prey. “Reproduction seems to be the main function of these biological groups,” says Bradshaw. Cats do their hunting alone — unlike, say, canids — but they breed in groups, and care for the young indiscriminately. A cat in a colony will catch a mouse and bring it back for whichever kitten is there, whether or not it’s biologically the hunter’s offspring. Same thing with nursing; cats will nurse basically whoever’s there. Their hormones during that time are bonkers, which is why mother cats will adopt, “anything that’s small and squeaks,” Bradshaw says, even an animal like a duckling that would normally be prey.
The relationship between cats and kittens is described by one set of behaviors — nursing, cleaning, weaning, teaching how to hunt, poop, and cover up poop — while the relationship between adult cats comes with a totally different set of behaviors. Adult cats communicate almost exclusively with body language, conveying meaning through scent marking, tail movements, and physically touching or grooming each other. The behaviors they perform with other adult cats are, mostly, the same that housecats use on us. “We know they’re using the same signals to us as they would do to other cats that they want to get on with, want to collaborate with, want to share space with,” Bradshaw says. There are, though, a few behaviors that cats use for humans but not for other adult cats. The most obvious one is vocalizations; cats are, basically, silent amongst themselves in feral colonies, but noisy to varying degrees with humans. “The explanation that’s been given, and I think it’s right, is that it’s almost entirely learned behavior,” Bradshaw says. “Meowing, in particular, is something that’s very rarely done by cats living in the wild, but is very common [in homes].”
There’s a lot of weirdness going on with cat vocalizations, but there’s evidence to back up the theory that meowing is a learned behavior, a specific response cats give when presented with a useful but stupid creature like a human and not used in other situations. Though we can tell whether any cat’s meow is “pleasant” or not, a study from 2003 indicated that cats develop private languages with their owners — that a cat’s owner can distinguish, roughly, what a cat wants or means with its different meows, yowls, and chirps, but that these different meanings are not universal; subjects who listened to recordings of unfamiliar cats were totally unable to figure out what the cat wanted.
Cats do sometimes make little vocalizations with kittens, but meowing, the most common vocalization used for humans, is basically unknown in any other communication. “Each cat learns this individually, that meowing at their owners gets a response,” Bradshaw says. That all suggests that vocalizations aren’t a hint that a cat sees us as a kitten, but that the cat is merely adapting to the strange needs of a human, which doesn’t understand the cat’s very obvious nonverbal cues.
But what, I asked, about the the behavior wherein cats that are allowed outdoors will sometimes hunt and leave a mangled corpse of a mouse or small bird somewhere in its owner’s house? A standard interpretation of that behavior is that the cat is bringing a present to its owner, and given that in feral colonies, cats are solitary hunters and only provide food to kittens, that would suggest that cats see us as kittens. “Here you go, you dumb idiot human, I know you can’t hunt for yourself so I did it for you,” the cat seems to say.
Bradshaw doesn’t think so, though: he thinks that behavior is a combination of instinctual behavior and the simultaneous uselessness of that instinct when a cat lives as a pet. “I think there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for that, which is the cats are not actually bringing you food at all, but bringing food into the house because that’s a safe place to eat it,” he says. Cats in the wild don’t eat prey where they catch it; because cats are also prey for other animals, they want to bring food somewhere more safe where they can be free of coyotes or whatever. But that gets all screwed up, because a housecat’s safe place isn’t a corner of a barn, but a house.
So the cat brings its newly caught food into the house, where it realizes, oh, wait. This food stinks. “Cats rarely eat what they catch anyway,” says Bradshaw. Housecats, according to Bradshaw, much prefer commercial cat food to newly-dead animals; their instincts compel them to hunt, but when they’re hungry, they go for the bowl of chicken-drumstick-shaped food pellets, the McDonald’s of pet food. So they leave their prey in the safe place, but don’t bother eating it. For Bradshaw, this behavior has very little at all to do with humans.
So how does Bradshaw think cats see humans? “A simple summary would be, for me, that cats see us as adult cats, but ones which are different in behavior.” The way I rephrased this to Bradshaw, which he did not refute, is that cats see us as giant, weird, dumb adult cats that if treated in a certain way can provide food and head scratches. Where this kind of breaks down is that, well, a cat can’t exactly start talking or eating with a fork to demonstrate that it knows we are not a cat. “Their behavioral repertoire is really quite limited,” says Bradshaw. Basically, the way cats treat any animal falls into one of three categories: an animal the cat can eat, an animal that can eat the cat, or an animal that fits into neither of the prior two categories that could still somehow fulfill a need like reproduction or affection.
To get a cat to file a non-cat creature into that last category, it must be introduced at a very specific point in the cat’s life: Before it reaches the age of around eleven or twelve months. After that, all non-cat animals are either prey or potential death, including humans, dogs, horses, raccoons, and Golden Snub-Nosed Monkeys. If you introduce a cat to a dog in that timeframe, the cat will grow up seeing dogs as, basically, alterna-cats: A neutral animal that cannot be eaten but also will not attempt to eat the cat. Same with a human, except if you teach the cat at that young age that a human can be not just a neutral but an ally, a creature that will provide the cat with food and head scratches, well, that cat will grow up seeing humans as something very similar to a fellow adult cat — except even better, when the big dumb idiot can actually understand what the cat is trying to say.
Because we can’t talk to the cat to find out what it thinks, it’s possible that saying “cats see us as weird dumb adult cats” is no more correct than saying “we humans see cats as semi-independent, fur-covered, mobile, weird baby humans.” But that’s maybe that’s not that far off, either.