No one can say for sure how domestic cats perceive their owners and other humans. We can guess from their behaviour.
It seems logical that cats perceive us as pseudo-parents (mother substitutes or surrogate mothers) and as a superior cat or superior being of some sort. They see us as parents because cat owners look after their cats from about the age of 12 weeks old when a young cat becomes independent. It is a permanent mother-kitten relationship. Much of the cat’s social repertoire seems to have revolved around this relationship. Cats ask us for food with a meow. We oblige. They rub against us without necessarily expecting the same behaviour in return. They lick us and we stroke them in return.
The size difference between us supports the idea that they see us as some sort of superior cat or animal. Our superior size means that our cats behave in a way towards us as if they are interacting with a bigger or senior member of their feline family. The size difference is important. Almost by default a cat is vulnerable to being intimidated by their owner simply because of our greater size.
Dr Desmond Morris, the celebrated biologist, discusses whether sometimes domestic cats see us as kittens. We know that cats bring home prey and present it to us as a ‘gift’. Desmond Morris states that “although usually they look upon humans as pseudo-parents, on these occasions they view them as their family – in other words, their kittens”. He is referring to the way mother cats train kittens to hunt and become independent. It is the only time when an adult domestic cat appears to treat their owner as a kitten. It would indicate that domestic cats are confused about their relationship with humans. That would not surprise me, in fact.
Dr Bradshaw has an alternative explanation. He believes that the cat is simply bringing his prey home with the intention of consuming it at his leisure and to avoid an ambush from another cat at the place where the prey was attacked and caught. The cat then decides not to eat the prey because it is not “nearly as tasty as commercial cat food”. The prey is therefore abandoned which surprises the cat’s owner. I am not convinced about a mouse being less tasty than cat food nor the argument.
However, Dr Bradshaw’s explanation is inline with what is perhaps agreed by biologists as stated above. I would like to add that I don’t think that the surrogate mother/kitten relatonship is consistent. I believe that sometimes domestic cats see us as equals and behave towards us as equals. The amount of time that this happens depends on how humans relate to their cat. Is it a dominant relationship or one of equality?
Also, I have discussed the relationship between domestic cat and his/her owner. The relationship between domestic cats and other people I think is more problematic and more difficult to describe. Cats probably see other people as large, rather hostile creatures at least potentially but if their owner interacts well with the strange person then the cat is reassured and becomes less defensive. Sometimes domestic cats go towards visitors to the cat owner’s home even if that person dislikes cats. These cats are confident and highly socialised towards strangers and unusual activities. They probably believe that if the owner accepts the strange person then they should to. But this is not a kitten to surrogate mother relationship. The cat probably perceives human stranger-visitors as large feline associates and family members.
Dr Bradshaw is the author of the well-known book Cat Sense: The Feline Enigma Revealed and Dr Desmond Morris is the well-known biologist/author of perhaps the best book on cat behavior ever written: Cat Watching, the Essential Guide to Cat Behaviour.