The reason why I am addressing this question again – and it is a vital question – is because Linda P Case in her book The Cat, Its Behaviour, Nutrition and Health, states with confidence in a section on the human-cat relationship that “Adult cats interact with their human caretakers very similarly to the way in which they interact with other cats within their social group (i.e., as their equals) or, in some cases, in a more infantile way, treating humans as surrogate mothers.”
Linda P Case is a very knowledgeable writer about companion animals. She’s basically saying that cats see us and relate to us as cats, which is exactly what I’ve thought for a long time based upon personal experience and reading on the topic.
More particularly, domestic cats tend to relate to us as their mother because in a kind of fantasy world they are kept in a permanent state of belief that they are kittens and we are their mothers, providing for them in terms of security, play, food and warmth et cetera. If we didn’t provide for them so comprehensively, they would relate to us as other adult cats.
I did some quick research on this and asked Google to throw up some answers to the question in the title and frankly none of them really impressed me. There are references to studies which appear to have been managed by people who don’t really know cats. There is cat experience naïveté about their scientific studies.
However, the general gist is that cats form attachments to us in a similar way to those that dogs and babies form with their caregivers. But that doesn’t answer the question how they actually SEE US and relate to us in their minds.
There is an argument that cats don’t question how they see us or relate to us except that we are another ‘being’. And they don’t question the relationship as being one of two sentient beings. They don’t do this because they are not, in my considered view, self-aware. They’re not able to stand outside of themselves and observe themselves. If they can’t do that, they can’t take an objective view of their relationship with their caregiver.
They don’t ask themselves whether we are a cat or a human or any other creature. We are just there living with them. So, in terms of their visual experience, they don’t see us either as a cat or as a human. They just see us as a living creature who provides security and food.
But because the relationship is so one-sided in terms of the provision of security and food they instinctively and subconsciously are maintained in this kitten-mother relationship which affects their behaviour.
But, as Linda P Case states, cats interact with us in the same way that they interact with another cat within the limitations under which those interactions take place because we are very different sizes and we have different mentalities and athletic skills.
For example, we can’t play with our cat in the same way that another cat would play with them. And we can’t greet our cat in the same way because we are too big. So, there are barriers to a natural cat-to-cat interaction.
But if you stripped away those barriers and the kitten mentality of adult cats in human homes, at core the relationship is one of cat-to-cat.
RELATED: Respecting the cat: 8 ways
Linda P Case states that the human cat relationship is not hierarchical or based upon a dominant-subordinate dichotomy. I think there are some questions over whether cats engage in hierarchical societies. I think they do but it is a simple hierarchy. In multi-cat households you can get dominant and submissive cats. And there is no doubt that the human-cat relationship is one of boss and follower because it naturally flows from the caregiving provided by humans.
However, at its heart, the relationship between human cat is one of mutual benefit. Linda calls it “commensalism”. The word means an association in which one benefits and the other derives neither benefit nor harm. My first instinct is to reject this description because the relationship is far more mutually beneficial than one-sided which that word indicates.
There are numerous behavioural traits which indicate that the human-cat relationship is at core one of cat-to-cat. Take for example the feline greeting when the human caregiver comes home to be greeted by their cat companion. They go towards their human with their tail up and they rub their bodies against the legs of their caregiver. There is a height problem which prevents the normal cat-to-cat interaction but all the basic elements of the normal feline interaction are there. My cat even does a nose touch greeting if I lift him up. The tail up and nose touch greetings are typical of a friendship between two cats.
And if you allow (as you should not) yourself to play with your cat with your hands they respond in a very similar way as if they were playing with another cat.
Another example of cat-to-cat interactions which are more difficult when one of those parties is a human can be seen when domestic cats try to groom their human caregiver’s hair. Their hair is too long and it gets tangled up in their mouth. But domestic cats often groom their human caregiver by licking their hand. This is allogrooming and we see it all the time between cats.
Interestingly, it is known that cats respond to their name. We all know that and they do this through the sound of the name. This begs the question whether in multi-cat homes where inter-cat friendships are formed whether they relate call each other by their “name”. This might sound fanciful but it seems plausible.
One study said that cats don’t respond to the call of their name but they understand the call but wish to ignore it. Some time ago, I disagreed with that conclusion. The point I made is that domestic cats pick up the call of their name but take their own time to respond to it. This is partly due to what I would regard a slow mental processing of the call and partly because they make their minds up whether to respond to it. But under certain circumstances cats will come to a call very quickly indeed.
For example, when my cat follows me to the corner shop to buy the newspaper in the morning, when I call him, he often responds quite quickly and follows me. One factor here is the circumstances under which you call your cat. If the cat decides that there is a necessity to respond quickly, they will. Otherwise, they take time. But do cats call each other and request that they come over for a chat?!
Below are some more pages on the human-to-cat relationship.