When we look at a cat, what do we see? A small furry creature, a nice long tail, perhaps an air of aloofness. But it is, without a doubt, a cat. What’s harder to grasp is what, precisely, our furry companions think when they see us.
Cat cognition is woefully under-studied compared to dogs, which makes it difficult to know how felines perceive humans. So, Inverse assembled a team of pet experts and veterinarians to try and unpack this complex question: How do cats perceive their human owners?
Demystifying your cat’s thought processes and behavior may help improve your relationship with your furry feline.
“We may never find out what they are thinking, but we can certainly collect hints on their emotions of not only pain but of contentment, annoyance, fear and even sadness,” Yui Shapard, a small-animal veterinarian and educational director of the Association of Asian Veterinary Medical Professionals, tells Inverse.
What does my cat think when it sees me?
If you want to understand your cat’s thoughts, analyze your own behavior. Cats spend significant periods of their time in close proximity to humans, a relationship that shapes their thinking — and subsequent behavior.
“What the research has found is that cats respond differently to people depending on the mood of those people,” Emma Grigg, a certified animal behaviorist and lecturer at the University of California, Davis, tells Inverse.
“As for what your cat thinks when it looks at you, I'd say that depends on your shared history with that cat,” she adds.
Liz Stelow, a veterinary behaviorist at the University of California, Davis, agrees cats’ thoughts are shaped significantly by human behavior. For example, cats show sensitivity toward humans who are clinically depressed.
“Further, studies have indicated that cats look to humans for cues about whether a situation is concerning or not and may follow human body language for clues in problem-solving,” Stelow adds.
Right now, cat cognition is an emerging field of science, so to truly understand your cat’s thinking, you will need to wait for more research.
“One thing I would say right off the bat is that we are still learning a lot about domestic cat cognition, behavior, and interactions with humans,” Grigg says, adding “there are still many unanswered questions about cat behavior, and particularly the internal experiences of cats.”
Does my cat see me as a bigger cat?
The longstanding wisdom in the cat-owner community is that our felines basically see us as slightly bigger cats — not as a separate species.
“It is thought that cats perceive us humans as bigger versions of themselves,” Molly DeVoss, a certified feline training and behavior specialist who runs the nonprofit Cat Behavior Solutions, tells Inverse.
But is this theory really true? Well, not entirely.
“They might not necessarily know that we’re a different species or they just don’t care.”
For her part, Shapard doesn’t think the legend holds much merit. She says the idea might have spread based on the teachings of British anthropologist John Bradshaw — and she doesn’t think they hold water.
“I can’t find any reputable studies that offer us more insight on whether there’s any truth to this. For now, I’d say this is just a myth,” Shapard concludes.
Other experts heard the theory tossed around in scientific circles, but are similarly skeptical.
“I think it is unlikely,” Grigg says.
“Cats are certainly cognitively capable of distinguishing between a human and a cat — think, for example, of the differences in reactions of cats to an unfamiliar human in their living space versus to an unfamiliar cat.”
Studies on dog cognition do not support the idea that dogs view humans as bigger dogs, for example, and it’s likely cats behave similarly, Griggs says. Rather, cats view us as social companions and a “valuable resource” — i.e. as a provider of food.
Your own cat might love you, but an “unsocialized or feral cat would be more likely to see unfamiliar humans as a potential predator or another form of significant threat, rather than as another cat,” Grigg says.
Chyrle Bonk, a veterinarian at Excitedcats.com, has her own interpretation of the “bigger cat” lore. Cats do often treat humans like other felines, using gestures like licking or rubbing on both feline friends and human caregivers, she says.
“In a way, cats think of us as bigger cats,” Bonk says. “They might not necessarily know that we’re a different species or they just don’t care.”
Stelow suspects cats will treat their human caregivers with similar displays of affection they show toward other felines.
“We can trigger the purring and kneading behaviors they first engaged in with their mothers,” Stelow explains, adding cats will also bring us prey or play with us similarly to how they would with kittens in their litter.
Stelow believes strong attachment, rather than mistaken identity, drives these behaviors toward humans.
Can cats perceive human expressions of emotion?
From the limited research we have, scientists believe cats aren’t as good as dogs when it comes to perceiving human expressions of emotion.
“Unlike dogs, cats can’t tell human faces apart and don’t respond to facial features that express emotion,” DeVoss says.
The reason why is cats rely primarily on scent, not sight, to recognize their humans. Changes in our scent can also signal emotional or physical changes to our cat not visible to the human eye.
“When we are experiencing disease in our body, our scent will change slightly, and some medications emit a slightly different odor to our bodies,” DeVoss explains.
“Cats detect this and perceive a change in you, which often causes them to act differently when they are trying to figure out what’s going on,” she adds.
Yet some new research suggests cats may understand our facial expressions more than scientists thought. A 2019 study finds cats can read the human gaze to gain information.
“There have been some studies that demonstrate cats cognitive recognition of human emotion — sadness, anger and joy — expressed in auditory and facial expressions appears to be recognized in some studies,” Shapard says.
“Similarly, when we are emotionally different — cats feel as though we are unpredictable and try to figure out what’s going on,” DeVoss says.
Cats can also make eye contact with humans — particularly using their iconic “slow blink” — when they express affection or want to get fed, Shapard explains.
In studies on task-solving, Grigg says dogs will immediately look to their humans for help, while most cats try to solve the problem on their own. But cats still frequently look toward human faces to make sense of their environment using a tactic researchers call “social referencing.”
“Cats have been shown to look to their humans when faced with a novel situation or object — the same way that we do when we with a group of friends and something unexpected occurs,” Grigg says.
Even if experts don’t think cats can read our faces, they can still pick up on our emotions through our body language.
“They may not recognize our faces, but they can recognize us by body language, voice, and other behaviors,” Bonk says.
Experts suggest people mistakenly believe cats cannot understand human emotion due to stereotypes about cats being aloof or uncaring.
“I suspect many common perceptions about and interpretations of cat behavior are based on popular misconceptions and entrenched myths about cats rather than on the reality of cat behavior,” Grigg says.
Does cat body language reveal what they think about us?
The short answer: Absolutely. Experts have a few tips to improve your connection with your cat based on scientific understanding of their behavioral cues — and whether your petting is appreciated or not.
“As a rule, [it’s] generally best to allow the cat to approach you on their own terms,” Grigg says.
She suggests a simple consent test to gauge whether your interactions with your pet are to your cat’s liking.
“For example, if you are petting them and you stop, do they ‘come back for more,’ so to speak?” Grigg explains.
On the flipside, “by listening to a hiss or seeing the narrowing of the eyes, we can also avoid being injured when doing something a cat doesn’t like,” Stelow says.
Pay attention and don’t unthinkingly smooch your cat just because you want attention. Make sure your cat’s open to the gesture as well. Your cat may meow or rub your leg to get you to keep petting them, for example.
“You can tell a lot about what a cat is thinking by how they respond. They aren’t afraid to tell you when they do or don’t like something,” Bonk says.
Shapard adds, “we can also pick up subtle cues like a whooshing tail to be an expression of annoyance, or sleeping with their belly exposed as a sign of trust towards their human companions.”
But it’s also easy to misinterpret body language, so judge your cat’s cues according to the situation at hand. If your cat is in a new, stressful situation, its purring may not mean what you think.
“For example, we all know that purring is an act of contentment but sometimes it can be a sign of anxiety and a method of self-soothing,” Shapard says.
For additional resources on understanding cat body language, Grigg recommends:
Veterinarians also use a measuring tool called the Glasgow Pain Scale, Shapard says, to help gauge what felines are thinking, specifically, assessing body and facial cues for signs of discomfort or pain. The scale includes 28 different types of behavior, ranging from purring to a swishing tail.
At the end of the day, are your pet’s caregiver, so the onus is on you to pay attention to the behaviors your cat display and figure out what’s going on. Research suggests that few human owners seek behavioral help for their cats, even when they suspect something is amiss.
The best way to understand your cat’s mind and improve your feline-human connection is to pay attention — both to their behaviors and your own.