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.
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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