Dogs see their owner as pack leader. What do cats see their owner as?

Street cat regularly jumps on this person's lap when he comes by
Street cat regularly jumps on this person’s lap when he comes by. Photo: Pinterest.
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We are not completely sure how domestic cats see us and relate to us. There is quite a lot of discussion about this. The experts vary slightly in their assessment. It may be foolhardy, in fact, to try and work out exactly how domestic cats see us. This is because they may not have a clear idea themselves. They do not ask themselves what kind of creature we are. They don’t ask themselves why we don’t look like a cat, for instance. It is not something which enters their head in my opinion.

We are just there and we provide security, food and companionship. We don’t need to be pigeonholed into some animal species category by the domestic cat as it is of no interest to them.


Instinctively, however, their behaviour indicates that they are in a kitten-to-parent relationship in which we are, of course, the parent and they are the kitten. This means that they tend to remain in a sort of suspended state of kittenhood throughout their adult life.


Dr Desmond Morris provides some excellent examples of the kitten-to-parent relationship. When a cat tramples on your lap (kneading) in what is called “milk-treading” combined with purring he describes it as an example of “infantile behaviour” on behalf of the cat. He says that when a cat’s owner sits down in a relaxed manner she is giving off a signal as if to say:

“I am your mother lying down ready to feed you at the breast. The adult cat then proceeds to revert to kitten hood and squats there, purring contentedly and going through the motions of stimulating a milk supply”.

This, therefore, is a warm moment in the relationship between cat and person. It is not a moment to be broken just because the owner’s leg is being pricked by her cat’s claws.

Another obvious example that humans are in a family relationship with their cat is when cats rub up against their owner’s leg when greeting her. This makes the cat more at home. It’s important that “friendly members of the cat’s family should be scent-sharing in this way”. Once again this is an example of how cats see us as family members.

In another example of the kitten-to-parent relationship described above, when adult cats hop up on their hind legs to greet you they are doing something which small kittens sometimes do to greet their mother when she returns to the nest. Provided the kitten’s legs have developed sufficiently they will perform a version of the same movement when pushing their heads up towards their mother’s head. The mother might lower her head to assist in the process.

Cat loving woman
Cat loving woman. Stock photo from Getty Images.


This relationship is arguably turned on its head when an adult domestic cat brings home a mouse. At this point it could be argued that the domestic cat is behaving as a mother to us and we become the kitten. They want to instruct us on how to kill a mouse so that when we are adult we can hunt independently and survive.

It is hard, however, to regard the human-to-domestic cat relationship as anything other than a family unit.


A pack of dogs is a social group of conspecific canids. The word “conspecific” means of the same species. So a pack is a group of dogs with a social connection. This is not that dissimilar, it seems to me, to the relationship between cats in the multi-cat household and their owner. A pack leader is an alpha dog, as I understand it, and in the multi-cat household the human owner is a parent who has to lead and in some ways act like an alpha member of the family.

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1 thought on “Dogs see their owner as pack leader. What do cats see their owner as?”

  1. Milk treading is considered broadly to be a ‘seeking’ behaviour. Seeking food, comfort, shelter, companionship, relief from pain, attention – so many states! Purring can happen and have a different tone (message) depending on the need of the cat.

    Bonded infant, adolescent, adult and elderly cat companions will often milk tread on each other when they rest together. Often as a precursor or interval to allo-grooming.

    I’ve seen many a contented cat, happily milk treading, standing, sitting or lying down on a comfy resting place. Unbothered by human hand, eye or vicinity.

    It can be a self comforting, reassuring, expression of happiness too I believe.

    Jonathan Balcombe & Jeffrey Masson (both excellent, modern, published ethologists) have much good information on the expression of emotions & thought in other species.

    Small adult cats greeting larger adult cat friends will often lift their front halves up to reach the face, neck of the larger cat.

    I think cats probably feel a bit sorry for humans, we are very slow and indirect to them.


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