Anthropomorphising The Domestic Cat

Worried stray cat in China
Worried stray cat in China. Photo: Douyin
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Do we, inadvertently, nearly always anthropomorphise the domestic cat?  I believe that we have difficulty with dissociating the cat as a family member from human family members.  I believe that all too often without realising it people judge cat behaviour from the standpoint of human behaviour.  They measure cat behaviour in reference to the behaviour of a young child.  If you do this you invariably come to the wrong conclusions. One such conclusion is that a cat can be naughty and should be punished. Naughtiness followed by punishment is classic anthropomorphisation of the domestic cat. Another example is people asking: “why are cats mean?”. That don’t know what “mean” means!

For many people animals are humans “without our failings and vices”. Anthropomorphise: To ascribe human characteristics to things not human.

I recently wrote an article about attention seeking behaviour in cats and after I wrote it I realised that the concept of attention seeking behaviour is one that really relates to people.  I am not sure that it is at all in the minds of domestic cats that they need to seek attention in order to get what they want.

Yes, domestic cats do ask, in one way and another either by vocalisations or for example tapping you with their paw, but these are requests.  The domestic cat has to make a request because they are reliant upon the human caretaker for everything particularly when they are full-time indoor cats. In contrast, cats that are allowed outside are probably more likely to make fewer requests and therefore may in the words and concepts of human beings be less attention seeking.

A well-known writer about cats says that cat scratching is a form of attention seeking.  Perhaps I’ve misinterpreted what she has written but there is simply no connection between a cat scratching some furniture, for instance, and seeking attention.  Cat scratching is a form of feline behaviour.  It has many purposes and they are all founded in wild cat behaviour.  This is inherited behaviour from the wild cat ancestor and when a cat scratches there is no reference to human beings in what he or she is doing.

Also, the domestic cat does not do naughty things deliberately to catch a person’s attention.  I believe that is also anthropomorphising the domestic cat.  Being naughty deliberately is the sort of thing that a child might do.  We know that.  But to cross reference that form of human behaviour to cat behaviour is obviously incorrect.

The fact of the matter is that for the majority the relationship of human caretaker to domestic cat is really one of parent to child.  Even from the cat’s perspective people are seen as mother cats because they provide food and shelter. offThe adult domestic cat has somewhat the mentality of a kitten.  This encourages us to believe that the domestic cat is a child.

If people relate to their domestic cat as a family member but as a child then there’s bound to be a breakdown in expectations on the human’s behalf. This can lead to relinquishments to animal rescue organisations.

It is vital that cat owners have realistic expectations and ones which are firmly rooted in genuine cat behaviour which means understanding wild cat behaviour as well.

I believe that a lot that is wrong with cat ownership stems from anthropomorphising the domestic cat inadvertently and unintentionally. People cannot be blamed particularly because often people who anthropomorphise their cats are very good people and wish to do right by their cat but misguided good hearted cat caretaking is not going to great for the cat.

12 thoughts on “Anthropomorphising The Domestic Cat”

      • Thanks Michael, I tried looking at it in the Dictionary, but couldn’t find it anywhere. Thanks for explaining that. That is true I do believe. I cant write a long comment like Marc:) I do think of our Cats as family and members of the house. not as babies like they cant do anything. I always tend to talk to them I have a special bond with each of them but probably more with Rebel,Hes always been so softy He often complains. I probably treat him alot like a baby as he just a soft touch, doesn’t stand up to anyone. Cause with Jasmin being so young still & just being Fixed. I’ve had to close the cat door on both sides. Which irritate all the Cats.
        As Jasmine as copied the others how to get out. So I’m now the door opener and closer. SO every time, one wants in or out im Meowed at loudly which is irritating, when One has just come in and they want out again. They all have their special. I agree with what Marc was saying in the end part, as some cats and i agree my Cats do that sometimes esp when they want something like Rebel wants out or wants my attention he does this Scratching on the Door. Sometimes they get really affection when they want something. You might be busy doing something and intent on doing it , they might just be getting overly loving and meowing heaps, then gets to the point like what do you want thats how it is for me.

  1. Michael I am afraid I am in the boat of people who say cats will behave ‘badly’ to get attention.

    Let me be more specific. A cat will do things which they know will get your attention, and those are things we call bad. Usually to them it’s either loud or very noticeable – not bad per se but they do know it will bother you so they know they might get in trouble.

    Is that ‘being bad on purpose’? I would say so, in as much as a very young child who doesn’t fully understand might behave ‘badly’. ‘Act out’ – etc.

    Lilly does this. Gigi in Canada used to. If I am busy and Lilly gets frustrated she starts doing very loud and destructive things, and she does it until I either give her what she wants, or until I go and make her stop doing it, at which point she knows I will be frustrated. She knows because she is apprehensive about my behaviour. I know she is and I tend to use that in a slightly threatening way so to make her feel like it’s better to stop.

    In other words, I raise my voice a bit and start to stand up – and she gets ready to run away. But she knows I wouldn’t hurt her so basically there’s not much I can do.

    So I don’t think the concious part of them is ‘being bad’ – but perhaps ‘being loud and getting attention and bothering a person with that’ is more what they are intending.

    Another thing about this great endless subject – the best subject – is that humans are animals, and in many ways all animals are alike. Humans are pretty blind to that but the more connected to yourself you are the more you can relate to animals.

    So to anthropomorphise is not so wrong. I think the issue comes with social structures and politics. Animals don’t do that. Humans are controlled by it. So the mistake humans make when:

    Anthropomorphising? …or just a slightly outdated form of empathy… It’s almost impossible not to as a human who wants to understand things. The only way a person can do that is in his own terms. Those terms broaden and change with greater awareness, and ones ability to empathise in the desired way gets better with time and understanding – and personal experience.

    In a way anthropomorphising is simply the first step of empathy toward an animal. It’s impossible not to get it wrong in human terms at first, but that’s the necessary step to better empathy.

    Also – I think my logic tells me that all living things are equal and therefore should be treated as such. It works both ways though. I try to understand my cats, as do they try to understand me. It’s pretty good the relationships I have with them. I never assume them, to understand anything because they are cats, but I do expect them to make an effort too sometimes. To me that’s normal, and healthy. If you do everything for your cats and they make little effort for you then it’s a bit weird too.

    They know we love them but that’s not at the top of their list of wants. Top of the list is always playing. Then simple attention, talking etc – then after that food. I’d say cuddles come way down the list – often cats make do with cuddles because nobody will play with them.

    They sleep close to eachother and humans, and they appreciate and understand intimacy, but cuddles? That, if you ask me, is the biggest of all anthropomorphisisms (? can you say that?) – the ‘cuddle’ thing. No cat in it’s right mind wants to cuddle. Thats what we see it as. They want a nice massage, or to relax somewhere warm by you, but they don’t cuddle. They just don’t. I mean very rarely. They ‘kiss’ sort of and they like to touch you with their paws – your face for example when lying on you and you are horizontal. So saying the cat ‘likes to cuddle’ is misinforming.

    Anthropomorphisis is the most interesting vessel by which we understand animals. The word simply describes the direction we are coming from in our understanding of non humans. It’s not something we can choose to do or not do. It’s who we are. Humans. The more we learn and become aware, the less closed and restricted we become, and the more unified with all animals. But we start off with the human filter because we are human.

    Cats, by the way, are hypocrites in this context. They see us as big wierd cats sometimes. Now that is ‘auropomorphosis’ in the extreme.

    Ideally I could use my human filter for humans, and switch it off other times. I actually feel like a cat in many ways – I don’t like noise and hecticness, I have a similar way of socialising as they do, if anything I am looking at myself in cat terms. So what’s the name for that? And do cats do it – do they look at themselves and see human behaviour in themselves? No reason why not. When I say ‘see’ I mean simply ‘familiarise’ – something familiar links you to your other experiences with it, so maybe a cat will drink out of a glass and relate to humans in doing so – emotionally at least, but maybe a little thoughtfully too.

    Still working my thing for Red. I haven’t had enough time to think about it and that’s a big part of the problem – when I do I can’t be busy and must be alone. Much much harder to handle than I would ever have guessed….. but it will be nice, there’s a purpose to it, to come to terms with it. To understand it. Maybe I have to be careful about what terms I use – he was a cat and I am a human – it’s just different, but around death I think it’s very similar actually.

    Hope everyone is doing well 🙂

    • Hi Marc. I accept what you say and thanks for taking the time to write it. But what if a cat learns that if they make more noise or behave “badly” they get the food or play or whatever. Is that attention seeking or is it the person training the cat and the cat training the person without any reference to intentionally seeking attention?

      It could just be a simple case of this behavior leads to that reward whereas attention seeking is playing up to get a person to notice you (the cat). I don’t think cats behave in a certain way to get attention. They behave in a certain way to get something and the behavior is trained both ways (person to cat and cat to person). Seeking attention is a human behavior pattern due to the insecurity or vulnerability of the person. The person seeks reassurances. That is my take on it.

      I would like humans to become less human-centric, meaning more objective and to look outwards at the world and what they are doing as opposed to behaving as if the world revolves around them. If people could actually look at themselves objectively and in an educated way they would not behave like they do i.e. badly and with a lack of respect for the planet and animals.

      • Michael – I guess it didn’t come accross right. I was more just dissecting the whole thing and laying it out on the table and looking at it from all angles. As best I could.

        I suppose my conclusion is that we are conditioned as humans, and therefore we should aim to get rid of that and not look at cats through a human socio political lense – and intersubjectively apply it to the cat in order to interpret what the cat’s awareness or actions or communication. I would go as far as saying it is literally impossible not to do it, as a human, all beings understand only in their own terms, therefore one has to search out new experiences in order to grow ones terminology, ie: knowledge, understanding and capacity to empathize. Even then one will anthropomorphise, however I think all this stuff out on the table in little bits needs a point of anchor, or perspective.

        What actually is behind the premise of the statement of this article – I would imagine the point of it is in the context of cat caretaking and doing a better job for the cats, therefore not succumbing to the negative aspects of anthropomorphising them in situations where the interpretation is going to have a direct effect through action or non action on the cat. All that repeated only exacerbates the thing until it has become a chronic problem, and sadly, most of the time the human has no idea they are creating the problem.

        Now over to cats. The question of behaviour – what kind? Behaviour that causes a reaction, simply, for whatever reason, where the cat is communicating to the human and oftentimes the human thinks the cat is being bad on purpose because it wants attention. On the surface, ie: without taking it all apart and putting it on the table it’s pretty simple. No the cat is not being bad to get your attention, on purpose, knowingly. The simple obvious answer is the cat is in the middle of it’s cat equation, which has a result that involves the human but that it never was, nor will be about the kind of attention or the kind of values most humans apply to it when interpretting the situation.

        But I think that like most things it is murky, and as humans we try to define which is just putting and end to it, but it’s alot more subtle and complex than that. Lets say – whether by training as you put it, or by chance the cat has learned that when there is a serious problem, a lack of food or an uncleaned litterbox, something really immediate and serious for a cat, they can walk accross that mantlepiece thay literally almost never go on because they know the human will react, and for whatever reason, the end result is food in the bowl or the lack or problem is solved – ironically of course, it’s a human problem once again.

        No, not exactly as you say, behaving ‘badly’ to get attention. More what I just said, a sequence of events the way the cat might see it. The result is the same, so the human can easily believe whatever it wants but whichever it is will have a big effect on the human’s ability to understand the cat. I think what you said about humans actually needing the affirmation is absolutely bang on and brilliant. You could write a book just from that comment alone. It’s quite true. Mostly the humans needs to see a certain reaction from the cat from time to time. It’s no wonder they think the cat wants attention and love when what they really want is a good massage.

        Our culture is so schizophreic that our imbalances come out in things like relationships with animals. Mostly humans just want to be needed and want somebody they can give to and the acceptance of these things makes them feel affirmed. But the way we live is so weird that even though there are literally too many millions of us, crowding the place, cities like London, yet, in all of that, you have millions of lonely people oftentimes never do much more than going to work, not in a relationship, or in one and without friends. How can we be lonely in a crowd of people?

        That’s what’s wrong with our culture and that is what makes us psychotically over love our animals and think they need security and cuddles and for you to sing to them. Actually, they like the singing, and not because it’s an expression of the human’s love but because it’s meditiative and calming and for as long as you make sound they know where you are and what you are saying which means they can close their eyes and relax the senses and let you give them a proper massage.

        But I digress again – in the end, in most human cat relationships where this issue is prevalent in a negative way, what is happeneing is the cat is meowing and knocking things over and doing all sorts of stuff which just so happens to be the stuff the human can’t ignore and is really bothered by. But the whole time they are saying ‘what do you want’ and giving them food and saying well then what if you dont want that. This is the way of the person who is not willing to make an effort unless they have to, for the cat. Usually it has reached this point because of human negligence and ignoring the first signs of the issue.

        So the human who continues to anthropomorphise without questioning the method of interpretation is going to end up thinking they have a cat with mental problems and they will put the cat on drugs or something making up a bunch of reasons about who her mama was never there for her as a kitten and now she insecure and needs cuddles and some buprenorphine or valium to feel like a normal cat. lol 🙂

        We know perfectly well the entire thing from start to finish is human. Humans are damaged emotionally from the moment we go to school, but usually before that. We have so much to undo in order to be able to see more clearly. So it’s no suprise these style of anthropomorphosis is so mainstream. We are not allowed to have too much love or happiness in public spaces, we are so closed emotionally in social settings. Humans have trouble touching eachother for completely abstract reasons. Words like ‘intimacy’ are derived from latin which means ‘without fear’ — well excuse me but if we call being physically mentally and emotionally close to another person the same as being fearless – then you can bet your rock bottom dollar we are a bunch of bloody weirdos. I still think if aliens came they would leave and hope we didn’t see them. It’d be like accidentally logging into the most very wrong website by accident and just running for it hoping the 3 second rule counts and your computer will ot remember ever seeing it lol.

        The poor cat just gets a bum deal the whole way through. They are like little love rags for humans to love on until they are drunk, all the while completely disrespecting them. Love, when it’s invested in one or two or some countable number of entities, cannot be healthy or balanced. Love is everywhere. It shouldn’t be something we reserve for a few and the rest of the time in public space and even private social space we perpetuate this usual human distance and dryness, which we don’t bother comparing to the experience of loving a person because we consider the two to be separate things for different moments. We even have a neat little word for it so we can lock it up in this restricted yet intense and toxically overpowering role in our lives – the role of ‘love’.

        What to do about it then – well surely we have to listen look and take in more with the cats, we mustmake sure our priorities are right with the cats well being in it’s own terms, not ours, and generally question ourselves and react to problems constructively. Well obviously – just be a good person. That’s always it once you get these things and think them to pieces.

        That’s what I was doing.


        Depending who you are – the cat is either pissing you off on purpose because it wants something, or the cat just wants something. Hopefully they realize that they must have let it get to that point. One would hope there’s a purpose to all this negativity but that’s such a winding road sometimes it the general picture looks very dull indeed.

        But I have a bit of faith in humans. I honestly think if you can get a person to see what’s really going on they will make the right choice. It’s just hard being able to see things for what they are I guess, we always project ourselves onto everything, everyone ……and so every cat around us.

        • Good to hear you have abit more faith in Humans we not all bad. Just there’s some of us not to trust. Hope your well. great comment wish i could write big long comments.

      • I’m sorry – I usually try to avoid being over complicated with sentences but this wasn’t very successful on that front.

          • That’s very generous of you but I do go on a bit too much i the same point usually – that’s how I see it on hindsight. I don’t know why I think it matters to analyse to such an extent but I do know that it changes my feelings about a matter, often for the better, sometimes to the point of solving it completely and being able to let go of it emotionally with a feeling of resolve.

            Language is brilliant at shedding light on stuff. Even what I just said about resolve. Brialliant word, linked I believe to ‘resolution’, which has two very powerful meanings that create a super interesting juxta position. In Chinese the word for ‘destiny’ is the same as the word for ‘opportunity’, obviously language was made when we still had some idea about how to live sustainably. In Swedish, interestingly the word for ‘destiny’ is the same as the word for ‘waste’ – putting all 3 together is pretty weird to compare.

            Regardless, I find talking about things alot creates a higher resolution image. It creates resolve, it is the source of my resolutions and the words also act as links to the otherwise unknown. Words are powerful basically, and many of them tell a story through their necessity, inception and form history til present. It’s very telling that we use words like ‘euthanasia’ – this word is ingorance in action if the person using it is invested in using it. Rarely would there be any other reason to use it than to ignore what it really means and what is really happening.

            Michael how do you feel about cats treating a human as if it were a giant cat? They do that alot – my ex has 2 cats who she bottle fed – they think she is their mum for sure it’s pretty special. They are very human in their behaviour as it happens anyway. Personally I don’t see it as being significant because they are following their instincts and they grew up in special circumstances. Also there’s an unwritten rule which says if one believes in all honesty that the cat doesn’t know any better, it doesn’t count. It only matters that humans do it because they can easily also not do it – it’s a choice therefore.

            It’s pretty interesting to, and excuse me for sounding very dry, analyse the language of analysis on a specific event, person or thing. Often there’s a pattern which is very telling and adds significant meaning to the overall picture.

            In this case it is the fact that, if you think about it, we can only start from a point of anthropomorphising – and the challenge is to get rid of that filter we are born with. The only way to start trying to understand the unknown is first by analysing it which, since it’s unknown, we can only do using things we know. Hopefully this gives clues and we can access it and it becomes known, and added to our repertoire of experience, and capacity to understand.

            I think it’s brilliant that you said you suspect it’s people who need the affirmation and the cats don’t – that rings true in my mind. And naturally those people think that’s actually what the cat needs because that’s how they see the supposed ‘attention seeking’ behaviour in reference to their own experiences asking for attention.

            Here I go repeating the same thing again 5 different ways. I’m at work so better do that 🙂


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