What does my cat think I am?
April 19, 2007 2:57 PM   Subscribe

What does my cat think I am? In other words, in his brain, what has he classified me as?

I've had my cat, Charlie, since he was 10 weeks old. I'm curious as to how he classifies and labels me in his mind, although I do understand that of course he doesn't think in words.

For example, does he understand that I am a species distinct from himself, or does he see me as a giant, furless cat?

Does he see me as he would his father, mother, or a littermate — a familial relation? (I presume not his father, since I don't think cat fathers stick around.) Or does he see me as a non-family person who lives in the same domicile he does?

I of course understand that cat thought is not as fully sentient as human thought, but obviously, there's more than a small degree of intelligence in their brains.

I'm just curious as to whether there's any scientific thought or studies that have figured out how they label us internally in those little kitty brains.

Any other studies or information about how cats frame their world would be interesting as well, although I'm primarily interested in this question.

And ... this question's a great setup for humorous responses, but serious answers only, please. :)
posted by WCityMike to Pets & Animals (44 answers total) 78 users marked this as a favorite
I've wondered this to as to my own cat, Moe, who I got as a very young feral kitten.

I assume it would be mother / warmth & food provider / shelterer / playmate. I doubt species distinctions would be made; there are merely animals/things that are dangerous and animals/things that are prey or toy, and animals/things that are either friendly or at least not dangerous.
posted by luriete at 3:08 PM on April 19, 2007

As far as I can tell, rather than viewing you as alpha pack member, as dogs would, cats view you as a parent. Note how cats essentially ask for parental fulfillment from us, rather than pack approval. A few humble points towards such:

1) Bunting - you know, the head butt. That's a "please nurse me" behavior. There's a slightly different scent-marking feature, too, so those are easily confused.

2) Meowing - kittens meow at their parents. The great cats do not meow in the wild, after they mature. "My" two feral cats took years to begin to meow at me. They would sometimes open their mouths but forget to vocalize, but they enventually caught on.

3) Mother cats groom kittens, who aren't quite up to the task themselves - petting is grooming.

Cats probably do not have the idea of separate species or particular roles - they have a lot of complex behavior that can be triggered by other factors, this makes them look like they have some kind of classification scheme. Until you jerk a string past them just right, at which point the cat chase reflex kicks in ...
posted by adipocere at 3:09 PM on April 19, 2007 [5 favorites]

I'm pretty sure my cat, who was a young-adult stray when I took him in 15 years ago, thinks I'm his mom. He stays near me when I'm around the house, mews at me for food or to be let out, and purrs loudly when I mush my face into his or pull on his ears, which he must assume is grooming.
posted by nicwolff at 3:10 PM on April 19, 2007

I second Luriete. I got my cat when he was too young to be weaned properly, 6 weeks, and to this day I swear that he thinks that *I'm* his mother.

He used to suckle on my neck when he was a kitten, as though I was nursing him. He can't get enough of me, stares at me with his half-closed bedroom eyes like I am the most wonderful cat in the world, and just generally behaves so incredibly in love with me that I'm convinced he thinks I'm Mommy.
posted by tristeza at 3:11 PM on April 19, 2007 [2 favorites]

We are helper monkeys, with extremely useful opposable thumbs. Our cats think we are kinda slow - well, downright dumb, really - when it comes to understanding what they want when they're meowing at us and trying to herd us toward the feeding area. I'm sure they wonder why we can't speak Cat yet.
posted by rtha at 3:15 PM on April 19, 2007

However, cats clearly recognize their own kind. Mine might sit about inertly for hours on end inside the house, ignoring the sounds of passing cars, barking dogs, chirping birds, and the voice of the turtle lifted throughout the land. But let some nearby outdoor cat yowl and suddenly they'll all bumrush the windows to check it out.

Also, two of the indoor cats are by nature extremely fearful of everything, but if I crack open the front door so they can view the two friendly members of my semi-feral mini-colony on the porch, they're keenly interested in checking things out and sniffing the faces of their wild brethren.
posted by Midnight Creeper at 3:20 PM on April 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

I agree with what the other posters are saying. Domestic cats, in essence, stay in permanent juvenile state. Parent/caregiver is probably the closest mapping.

Of course, this isn't a perfect analogy; my mom's cats are always very happy to see me and are super friendly when I visit. There's no way they think I'm their mom, but they like me anyway.

Cats also tend to pairbond with other cats, and I believe that bond can be formed with people. tristeza's description makes me think of pair bonding, rather than parent reflex.

Ultimately: we're not entirely sure, all we have are guesses. But we may be able to answer that question within the next 5 or 10 years, as we're starting to learn how to look at brains in action. Ask again in 2017 and you may get a fairly complete answer.
posted by Malor at 3:25 PM on April 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

This is very interesting.

I think cats can have different roles associated with different people as well. Our cat seems to see my partner as a parent and me as a sibling.
posted by roll truck roll at 3:26 PM on April 19, 2007

Meat. Every morning your kitty jumps into your bed to see if you are still alive or if the feast begins.
posted by LarryC at 3:30 PM on April 19, 2007 [46 favorites]

They also relate to us as kittens. They lie on their backs to purr and get their tummies rubbed (nursing) and they bring us their kills (feeding weanlings).

I don't think that they think of us as kittens or mothers exactly, but more that they use the mother-kitten module of their brains to relate to us with. That's the part of the brain that has relationships in it, so if they need to have a relationship with us that's the part of the brain they use.
posted by kika at 3:32 PM on April 19, 2007 [2 favorites]

I imagine -- without any scientific basis whatsoever -- that cats think of other creatures according to the following scheme: (1) cat, (2) non-cat prey, (3) non-cat other.

I think humans fall into #3. There are huge gradations within each. A cat doesn't like all cats equally. It doesn't go equally wild for all prey. And it doesn't think all non-cat, non-prey sorts are the same. We could imagine that those of us they like are honorary cats, but I think that's just a confusion caused by the fact that they have a limited set of ways they can express themselves. Likewise, just because I talk to, gaze adoringly at, and hug a dog doesn't mean I think it's a human.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 3:41 PM on April 19, 2007

I imagine it would be hard to determine if cats see species distinctions. On the one hand, they generally don't like dogs. But I attribute this less to recognizing it as a different kind of animal than than as one that gives off all the wrong signals; breaking eye contact, seeing being on it's back as submissive, etc. (also it has the evil "bark" that makes cats crazy.)

The lack of species distinction is especially noticeable in mother cats who will take in animals from a completely different species to raise as their own.

I'm not an animal behaviorist though so this could all be nothing more than anecdotal crap.
posted by quin at 3:45 PM on April 19, 2007

My cats think we're.....

posted by bilabial at 4:11 PM on April 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty sure that my cats think that they are one of me rather than me being one of them. The fact that they have picked up some of my weird traits assures me of this.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 4:14 PM on April 19, 2007

It's a mistake to anthromorphize cats. They don't think the same way we do. They're not as sophisticated, but what's more important is that their thought processes don't map as "same as us but simpler".

What does my cat think I am? In other words, in his brain, what has he classified me as?

Cats don't classify. They think about "what" things are. They react to situations more or less in Skinnerian terms: this behavior leads to this result, and if I like that result then I should do that behavior again.

They don't look for explanations. They don't seek to understand the substance of something. They're not analytical, the way we are.

You are a thing in the cat's environment, one that can be induced to do things that the cat likes, such as feed it and pet it. That's all that matters to a cat.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:22 PM on April 19, 2007 [3 favorites]

Spoken like someone who doesn't own share living quarters with a cat.
posted by softlord at 4:28 PM on April 19, 2007 [3 favorites]

My cat seems to think that my wife and I are food-dispensing playmate/parent figures and chew toys. (He is a rescue animal, was living on the street in NYC, but had had enough contact with people to kind of dig being around them. It took us the better part of a year to teach him that biting hard and clawing were *not* considered affectionate behaviors.)

He seems to think that our two dogs are really stupid, clumsy, potential cats.

Our dogs occasionally seem to think that they are cats; when the cat head-butts them and purrs, they try to simulate purring by growling low and wagging their tails furiously.

The cat has tried to teach the dogs how to catch mice. V. amusing.
posted by enrevanche at 4:33 PM on April 19, 2007 [3 favorites]

You might want to check out Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin. She talks a lot about this sort of thing (although she focuses a bit more on cows and horses rather than on cats.)

For what its worth, she gives the impression that the Skinnerian behaviorism - as described Steven C. Dan Beste above - is no longer considered very relavent in the field. Mammals have emotions, it's not all about stimulus-response.

Another neat book on the subject - although a bit hard to read (my version was all in sans-serif font, which just made it impossible!), is Affective Neuroscience by Jaak Panksepp. He talks about the base emotions which are shared by all mammals, and then goes into their neural correlates. (One of the base emotions is curiosity/seeking, and another is playfulness.) You won't perhaps learn how your cat classifies you, but you'll get a better sense of the range of possible emotional classes your interactions could fall into.
posted by wyzewoman at 4:42 PM on April 19, 2007 [6 favorites]

Until we can get in there and really think the way a cat thinks (which I think will be never), the best we're gonna be able to do is *guess* at the mind-activity behind all these observed cat behaviors. Our guesses will all be filtered through whatever set of assumptions we happen hold about minds in people and minds in animals.

So here's mine (which is really someone else's -- whose name I can't remember. Read it the Atlantic a while ago.): when my cat (poor, deceased Spoon) treated me like his mom he didn't do it because he thought I was his her. He did it because he had a limited number of social responses from which to choose. So when it was time to be social, he worked with what he had -- child-to-parent behavior.
posted by notyou at 5:00 PM on April 19, 2007 [2 favorites]

I'm also pretty sure my cat thinks he's whatever I am, not that I'm a cat, because he loves me to pieces, and he hates other cats. He's fine with dogs, though. My suspicion is that he was weaned very early, raised by affectionate humans, and then abandoned or lost on the streets of Philadelphia, where all his experiences of other cats were as enemies.
posted by nicwolff at 5:17 PM on April 19, 2007

Another book recommendation: The Character of Cats. Loads of fascinating stuff, including remarks on some studies I wish I could remember right now.

I think it's "non-cat adoptive Mummy." Though being licked has made me wonder if it's all that clear that I'm another species, I do not, unlike another cat (we have two), get my bum eagerly sniffed. I also don't get invitations to kittenish play, but I do get mewed at for food every morning: parent.

There's enough attachment to me in particular for me to feel I'm a family member. We left one at my parents' house for an hour a little while ago; the poor mite mewed sadly at the door for ten minutes after we left rather than just transferring the gimme-food instinct.

The scent-marking leads me to suspect I smell too odd to be a large hairless cat; they don't mark each other, at any rate.

It's the lack of bum-sniffing that really solidifies the idea that I'm not thought of as a cat, though. I feel terribly left out...
posted by kmennie at 5:19 PM on April 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

Cats have lived with people for a long time now, and dogs even longer. We have bred inter-special relations into their little pea-sized brains, whatever might have been there first. Cats can tell the difference between a human, a dog, and a squirrel -- I'd say that you are in that little cat brain as a "person," and within that category as a male or female, and within that as an individual.

All the cats and dogs I have lived with have been able to tell humans apart as individuals, even after long absences. They can also tell classes of people apart -- men from women, adults from children, etc. (I have met many guard dogs who were trained to tell black from white, which says something sad about the state of the world, but also something interesting about how dogs see people.)

The real question, of course, is what kind of poor opinion do cats have of humans -- we are so inept at everyday things like licking our own anuses, and we alternate between burning cats at the stake and treating them as honored members of the family.
posted by Forktine at 5:23 PM on April 19, 2007

I have always wondered this too, but after reading these responses I feel no closer to the answer than before. I'm just as curious how a dog driving by in a car can tell a dog on the street is a dog, without scent to rely on. Additional question: would a lion know my housecat is also a cat, or would it eat him? Do big cats eat other cat species? Do they bond?
posted by loiseau at 5:24 PM on April 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

In the end, it's about consciousness, but you might enjoy reading "What is it like to be a bat?" by one of my favorite philosophers, Thomas Nagel. Just think "cat" and change the echo-location bits.

My personal theory is that cat thoughts have one noun-like element (I use "Cat") which doubles as a self-reference and many, many adjective-like elements. So the dog is a large, barking, scary cat and the chair is a wooden, solid cat and you're probably a big, hairless, awkward but powerful cat. For verbs, I think cats probably don't distinguish individual actions in their own lives. Everything "cats", though perhaps in different ways, but it's not catting quickly around the house, then unconscious catting on the sofa, but rather all of that is part of a catting that has been going on for a long time and will keep going on in the future.

That said, I may have read somewhere or talked to a psychologist who said there was evidence that very young children separate species very easily. It would make sense if this came from a lot farther back in our evolutionary past. Of course, this would ruin my theory above, but you still wouldn't know what the content of the concept was, just that a distinction in concepts was there. At very least you would be non-cat.
posted by ontic at 5:29 PM on April 19, 2007 [2 favorites]

Do big cats eat other cat species?

If they can catch them, leopards will kill cheetahs.

Animals in the wild have no loyalty to their genus or biological family. Wolves and coyotes will kill and eat small family dogs. Chimps actively hunt monkeys. Orcas hunt dolphins.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:05 PM on April 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have heard that the reason cats leave lovely dead 'surprises' around the house is they think we are lousy hunters who may not be able to fend for ourselves.
posted by Sparx at 7:11 PM on April 19, 2007 [2 favorites]

I've often wondered this as well. From observing my own cats, I think they see us partly as parent/caregiver cats (though they know that only some humans are food sources), partly as poor retarded cats that don't know how to hunt, and partly as magic black boxes that can be caused to produce food by meowing in a certain way.
posted by hattifattener at 7:17 PM on April 19, 2007 [2 favorites]

I think this is a fascinating question, but I don't think modern neuroscience or animal behavior is really up the task of giving a convincing answer.

Cats definitely are capable of discriminating between various species based on sight alone. Our (indoor) cat knows the difference between humans (uninteresting) and squirrels (very interesting!) and dogs (scary!) and other cats (rivals, die!) by sight, and reacts very differently. He also seems to be able to recognize his own reflection at least well enough to know that it's not another cat and can be safely ignored (I don't know if he ever tested that though, or he's just always somehow known the mirror isn't a window; I've been long tempted to get a big mirror and put it outside one of his favorite sitting windows just to see what happens, but I don't think it would pass the "ethics board"...).

There is definitely a lot of basic Skinnerian 'if I do x then y happens,' but I also think there are more complex things going on inside kitty and doggie brains, that if you could get in and experience them, would probably start to border on recognizable thought.

Honestly though I'm not sure it's really even productive to try and fit what their mental picture must be like, into human terms; I'm not sure it's possible to do. I think eventually you get into one of those "explain color to a blind person" jams; there just isn't the common ground to explain how it's actually perceptively felt or experienced.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:31 PM on April 19, 2007

The longer I observe our two cats, the more I see "human" traits in them. That's not to say they picked those traits up from us -- rather, I see commonalities between our species. The way they play, the way they relax, the way they get jealous of each other, the way they fight... many of these behaviors seem to be deep programs that we share.

When I see them running around chasing each other, it reminds me of playing tag as a child. It's uncanny how similar the behaviors are. We think we do what we do for rational reasons, and animals do what they do b/c of instinct or Skinnerian/Pavlovian reasons. The truth is we are a lot more alike than we want to admit.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 9:11 PM on April 19, 2007 [2 favorites]

The truth is we are a lot more alike than we want to admit.

I'll admit it when they do.

Seriously, I think there's an endearing (mostly) human trait of finding human traits in everything; we notice human-like behavior in cats and treat them as much as we can like humans. Cats may treat us as much as they can as cats. That doesn't mean either one of us takes the point as more than a romantic fiction. Reflect on its limits next trip for a spaying.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 9:36 PM on April 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

Good to remember from a behavior standpoint that cats do need the ability to recognize different species and classify them in some way to function effectively. For the most part, this will fall into broad categories such as "enemy", "friend", "food" or "unimportant".

Cats with no prior experience with people will likely see us as potential enemy or at the very least unimportant. Other cats will be seen as friend (in the sense that "friend" means "potential hunting partner" or "potential mating opportunity", ignoring for purposes of this discussion the important distinction between "potential partner" and "potential competitor for said partner"). Prey items (generally anything smaller than the cat) fall under food, unless prior experience has taught the cat to ignore them, in which case they are uninteresting.

Human cat owners? Most likely friend (leading to interactions based on the limited social repertoire available to cats, as noted above), and in many cases uninteresting (depending on the level of interaction). However, they would most definitely not see us as other cats - recognition of species is important for mating, a mistake that animals typically will not make (I won't say never - I had a dog once who used to try and seduce the neutered cat that lived on our porch). Mating with the wrong species means no reproductive success - in evolution terms, you lose.

As for animals raising other species, well, most young look fairly similar (big head, small body, etc.) and the instinct to feed anything that might be a kid is beneficial enough in terms of reproductive success to have been favored by evolution despite the occasional mistake.
posted by caution live frogs at 9:39 PM on April 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

posted by caddis at 9:40 PM on April 19, 2007

Kadin2048 writes "He also seems to be able to recognize his own reflection at least well enough to know that it's not another cat and can be safely ignored"

Self-recognition is an important measure of intelligence - very few animals are capable of this. Humans, chimps, elephants, dolphins, and (if I remember correctly) a few types of bird.

Cats learn to ignore the mirror, not to recognize themselves. They just don't stare at Mirror Cat because every time they look Mirror Cat stares back, which is unnerving; however Mirror Cat is never overtly threatening as it puts off no smell and doesn't try to steal food. If you look closely, you'll likely notice that the cat will make every attempt not to look at the mirror. I've teased mine with a hand held mirror; the second eye contact is made, the cat suddenly finds it highly important to turn his head in another direction. This can go on for minutes at a time before he gets fed up and stalks angrily away.
posted by caution live frogs at 9:45 PM on April 19, 2007 [2 favorites]

larryc has it right: meat.
long time ago in my old condo complex: my neighbor, the nice elderly lady, hadn't been seen outside for a week. her relatives broached their concern to me. i was dumber and more athletic at the time, so i climbed up on her balcony and peered in through the sliding glass door.....

uh-oh. there was her corpse, and her cat had already eaten her eyeballs and tongue.
posted by bruce at 9:55 PM on April 19, 2007 [4 favorites]

I agree with a couple of things here: (a) cat's probably don't consciously classify and (b) they -- probably unconsciously -- respond to us much as they would to a parent cat.

But it's also worth remembering that cats have been domesticated for nearly 10,000 years. They may have evolved a distinct brain-mapping for humans.
posted by grumblebee at 4:10 AM on April 20, 2007

tristeza, what you are describing is a cat who does not think you are its mother or its love object, but rather a cat who is your witchly familiar. Or so my husband says about me and my Evel, whose relationship is very similar.
posted by Scram at 4:32 AM on April 20, 2007

He's a cat. He probably views you as merely a member of his staff. He only allows you to live in his house because he has no opposable thumbs and cannot open his food containers himself.
posted by GlowWyrm at 5:07 AM on April 20, 2007

I think my cats see me mainly as a food source, and something that's fun to bunny-kick every once in a while. They are affectionate, but it may be just a ploy to get food. I really doubt it's more complicated than that.

I, in turn, see them as roommates that don't pay rent, don't clean up after themselves & eat the food I pay for.

Amazing what we do for cute furry things, isn't it?
posted by Alpenglow at 6:29 AM on April 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

I don't think my kitty thinks I'm Mom/Parent. I always get the feeling it is along the lines of "Bag of Meat That Will Feed Me".

That is not to say she doesn't follow, bunt, purr, knead, need, meow and snuggle with me. I just think she realizes she is on a higher plane of existence than Yo.
posted by YoBananaBoy at 7:15 AM on April 20, 2007

I have had a number of cats who demonstrate strangely ritualitic behavior.

Isis, who was spayed before she ever had kittens, used to take any toy which resembled an animal, including small stuffed animals not intended for her, and hide them behind furniture. If I found the hiding place, she would change it. I would periodically come home (I live alone, except for the cat) to find these "kitten-substitutes" piled in the middle of the bed. If I ignored it, she would take them away. One day, I came home to find her standing over the pile on the bed, making an incredible keening sound. Over her 18 1/2 year life, I caught her doing this many times. I called it mourning her dead kittens. It's hard not to anthromorphize that behavior; it just seems to tell a story.

My current cat, also exhibits the hoarding toys behind furniture behavior; no mourning of symbolic dead kittens yet.
posted by ljshapiro at 11:44 AM on April 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Cats have no concept of species. Its really an artificial construct. Everything is related on some level to everything else. I'm certain that the cat is aware of differences and similarities and that's what it operates on. So when it sees a cat it knows "more like me than that tall thing." It is no doubt a spectrum.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:23 PM on April 20, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks, everybody. I'm not convinced there's a "best answer" to this question, but I think that barring a few wiseguys, the commentary here gave me a lot to learn and think about. Thanks again!
posted by WCityMike at 8:38 AM on April 23, 2007

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