Can and do domestic cats lie?

The answer is that we don’t know but it’s worth discussing the topic as it illuminates certain aspects of feline behaviour. Lying is a big part of human behaviour. The first issue is whether lying has to be a verbal or written statement or whether it can be a form of communication made in other ways. I think that it can be the latter which means that it is a communication in any way which transmits information intended to deceive or mislead and which is known to be untrue by the person or animal transmitting it.

Cat meowing I want
Cat Meow. Photo by rhibiki.geo
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There has to be an intention to lie. This requires a certain mental state in the liar and it requires the liar to have an understanding of the mental and thought processes of the person or animal that the lie is communicated to. This is called the “theory of mind”.

To emphasise the point; in order to be a liar, you have to understand that the recipient has a certain mental state or thought process. They’ve got to have this in order to understand that the lie is going to work. Otherwise, there’s no point in doing it.

There are instances of animal behaviour that are intended to deceive others, including humans. One such instance comes to mind immediately which is that of a horse who pretended to be dead in order to get out of being ridden. This was a sophisticated action. It didn’t deceive the horse’s owner (no surprise) but the intention was there and the horse must’ve believed that the person to whom the ‘behavioural lie’ was directed would believe that he/she was dead. To me, this indicates that the horse had some knowledge of the mental processes of the human.

RELATED: Horse does not want to be ridden and pretends to be dead. Why?

Opossums are famous for faking death when threatened. This is a survival instinct. It is a similar form of what I call a ‘behavioural lie’.

It needs to be said, though, that the scientists are unsure if animals have a theory of mind and unless we are sure that they do we can’t say that they lie.

What about cats? Do cats do anything which is designed to intentionally deceive us? Something comes to mind and it is this. Cats have developed a vocalisation which sounds like a baby crying. They meow with a hint of baby-sound. The intention is to compel the recipient of this evolved sound i.e. their human caregiver, to provide food without delay.

RELATED: Cat sounds like a baby – the evolved meow

So, the cat is pretending to be something that they are not which is a lie and it is delivered in a vocalisation i.e. a statement. The cat must know that it will be effective in tweaking the mind of their human caregiver. Could this point to a theory of mind?

Domestic cats are good observers and they learn from their observations. A cat employing the baby cry must’ve seen how their owner attends to the family’s toddler or baby when he cries. They’ve seen cause and effect and copied it. In doing so, they are lying through behaviour.

But is this a blind learned behavior or is there deliberate intention behind it? We don’t know.

Meowing in unison
Meowing in unison. Photo in public domain.

Domestic cats also engage in other forms of behavioral ‘lies’ (are they really lies?). For example, when a tabby cat is curled up on a rock, they look like snakes to help defend themselves. And of course, domestic cats hiss to sound like a snake. This is a defensive measure to deceive the recipient into believing that they are more dangerous than they might be as all animals instinctively understand that snakes are dangerous. This also points to an understanding of the thought processes in the recipient.

Crab walk cat
Crab walk cat. I added the yellow lines to highlight the flattened ears, the heightened arched and fluffed tail. The flattened ears protects them the rest make her look larger.

In another defensive measure cats present themselves sideways on and erect the hairs on their body to make themselves look larger when they feel threatened by a predator. This is a form of intentional deception and they must know that it works otherwise they wouldn’t do it. If they know that it works, they must have some knowledge of the mental processes of the recipient. Is this a theory of mind?

Can and do domestic cats lie? It’s work in progress and the jury is out to use a couple of clichés. We don’t know, but it’s nice to discuss it.

4 thoughts on “Can and do domestic cats lie?”

  1. Had a cat persistently meow at me and try to lead me to a different place, as if she needed me to see something. The instant I got up, she stole my chair!

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  2. I think my cat, Manfred, lies, or else he forgets conveniently. I’ve trained him to know that I won’t give him more kibble until he’s eaten what I’ve already given him. Because I don’t want him to get too fat again. He comes into my bedroom and whines at me, so then I go and see if he’s eaten all of the kibble and if he has, I give him another heaping teaspoon of senior cat kibble. Sometimes he comes in and whines for more kibble when he has barely touched what he already has. I doubt that he’s forgotten that he hasn’t eaten all of his kibble. He never forgets if his bowl really is empty.

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