How do cats relate to humans?

Do domestic cats think of us as (a) surrogate mothers or “pseudoparents” (b) equals (c) kittens (d) giant superior cats or (e) unspecified, reasonably benevolent creatures who provide for them? Or none of these? Or, all five at various times and under various circumstances? Do cats relate to us in one way? Are they confused by who we are and even the circumstances under which they live? So many questions, too much uncertainty. Even today, at least 10,000 years after the process of cat domestication began, we are unsure of the answers.

Cat and child. Looks like the cat relates to this child as an equal and vice versa. Photo in public domain.

Pseudoparents and kittens

Renown biologist Dr Desmond Morris believed that two of them apply (a and c in the list). When cats come home with a live mouse he regards it as a mother cat bringing prey back to the den to educate her offspring in how to kill prey. Wild cats do this. It is a feasible idea. Dr Bradshaw disagrees. He says that when cats bring home prey animals as an “unwelcome gift” they are simply bringing home food (as a secure place) to eat but find that they prefer commercial cat food instead and abandon the mouse. He also thinks that it is implausible that domestic cats ignore the huge size difference and see us as their kittens. Also in the wild male cats don’t do this and neither do females without kittens.

Surrogate moms

Perhaps the true answer is that some female cats do treat us as kittens from time to time when they bring home prey. Perhaps there is a flexibility in their relationship with us. Domestic cats may be confused. The first possibility, (a) above, is almost certainly correct because it fits in with what we can see happening. It is logical. Humans behave as a parent to their cats. Domestic cats adapt to our much larger size and upright stance by, for example, raising themselves up on their hind legs when interacting with us or jumping onto furniture to cancel out the height difference.

Allogrooming as equals

Cats groom us. Bradshaw regards this behavior as cats acknowledging that we are superior. I am not sure. It looks more like allogrooming to me (mutual grooming). We stroke them and they lick us. It seems they waver between seeing us as superior because we are bigger and seeing us as equals because many times they give this impression to us.

Unspecified creatures who provide

In general I feel that my cats relate to me as an equal being. They are not subservient to me and neither do they try and boss me. They are aware of the size difference. Perhaps this because I relate to them as equals too. As to whether they see us as cats, this is another matter. You can ask the same question of barn cats who form friendships with horses. Do they see horses as cats? No, I think not. There are many instances of cats bonding with other species such as squirrels and owls or even crows and reptiles. It is more logical to believe that these cats are not asking themselves as to whether their friends are another species of animal. They don’t challenge themselves over it or question it. The horse or human is just there, another creature.

They don’t compare their appearance with their human companions/carers because it is believed that cats are not self-aware and therefore don’t recognise their appearance. This means they don’t recognise us as being different in appearance to them except for the stark difference in size of adult humans.

Conclusion

My personal conclusion is that domestic cats relate to us as providers and therefore pseudoparents but they don’t perceive us as cats or another species of animal but simply as unspecified, significant others (SOs) to use a human term. SOs are also best friends or “my person” to use the language of Grey’s Anatomy.

Interspecies relationships – there are many more on this site

Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

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