National Geographic Daily News
Photo of a gray domestic cat.

Domestic cats like this one may not really understand people.

PHOTOGRAPH BY FSTOP, ALAMY

Christine Dell'Amore

National Geographic

Published January 27, 2014

Since cats first got their adorable claws into us about 9,500 years ago, humans have had a love affair with felines.

Today more than 80 million cats reside in U.S. homes, with an estimated three cats for every dog on the planet. (Watch a video about the secret lives of cats.) Yet there's still a lot we don't know about our feline friends—including what they think of their owners.

John Bradshaw is a cat-behavior expert at the University of Bristol and the author of the new book Cat Sense. After observing pet cats for several years, he's come to an intriguing conclusion: They don't really understand us the way dogs do.

Bradshaw recently shared some of his insights with National Geographic.

How did you get into cat behavior?

For the first 20 years of my career I studied olfactory [smell] behavior in invertebrates. I've always been fascinated by this other world that animals live in—primarily of odor, which is dogs' primary sense. So in the early 1980s I started working on dog behavior. [Later] I very quickly became fascinated with cats, and what their idea of the world is compared to the one we have.

What do you do in your research?

A lot of observation—watching groups of cats to see how they interact with one another and deducing their social structure. [I watch] cats in colonies that are free-ranging, and in animal shelters where quite a number will be housed together—you get interesting dynamics [when new cats are introduced].

I've also done slightly more manipulative things, such as studying the way cats play with toys, or testing cat [behaviors] at different times of the day. [I also observe] relationships with owners, interviewing them and giving them questionnaires to find out how they perceive their cats.

Why did you conclude that cats don't "get us" the way dogs do?

There's been a lot of research with dogs and how dogs interact with people. [It's] become very clear that dogs perceive us as being different than themselves: As soon as they see a human, they change their behavior. The way a dog plays with a human is completely different from [the way it plays] with a dog.

We've yet to discover anything about cat behavior that suggests they have a separate box they put us in when they're socializing with us. They obviously know we're bigger than them, but they don't seem to have adapted their social behavior much. Putting their tails up in the air, rubbing around our legs, and sitting beside us and grooming us are exactly what cats do to each other. (Also see "How Cats and People Grew to Love Each Other.")

I've read articles where you've said cats think of us as big, stupid cats. Is that accurate?

No. In the book [I say] that cats behave toward us in a way that's indistinguishable from [how] they would act toward other cats. They do think we're clumsy: Not many cats trip over people, but we trip over cats.

But I don't think they think of us as being dumb and stupid, since cats don't rub on another cat that's inferior to them. (See "Cats Use 'Irresistible' Purr-Whine to Get Their Way.")

Can we discover what cats really think about us?

More research needs to be done. [It's] not an area that's received sufficient attention. [Cats are] not wild animals, so ecologists [might think], 'Well they're not really animals at all.'

What has been most surprising to you in your research?

How stressed a lot of pet cats can be without their owners realizing it, and how much it affects the quality of their mental lives and their health. Cats don't [always] get on with other cats, [and people don't realize] how much that can stress them out. Other than routine visits, the most common reason cats are taken to vets is because of a wound sustained in a fight with another cat.

[More cats are mysteriously getting] dermatitis and cystitis [inflammation of the bladder] and it's becoming abundantly clear that these medical problems are made worse by psychological stress. [For instance], inflammation of the bladder wall is linked to stress hormones in the blood.

One solution is to examine the cat's social lifestyle, instead of pumping it full of drugs. [For example, that could mean making sure] two cats that [don't get along] live at opposite ends of the house. Quite often the whole problem goes away.

I have a few questions from cat owners on Facebook. First, why might a cat yowl when it's by itself in a room?

Cats learn specifically how their owners react when they make particular noises. So if the cat thinks, 'I want to get my owner from the other room,' it works to vocalize. They use straightforward learning. (Learn about National Geographic's Little Kitties for Big Cats initiative.)

Why do some cats treat one human member of the household differently?

They're much smarter than we give them credit for: They learn what works with what person. They know if [one member of the family] is prone to get up at 4 a.m. and give them some treats.

Why do cats knead us?

They are using behavior that they would use toward their mother—all the behavior they show toward us is derived in some way from the mother-kitten relationship. The kitten learns to raise its tail, rub on its mother, and knead and purr. Grooming is what mothers do back to kittens.

So they're using bits of behavior already in their repertoire to communicate with us. There aren't very many behaviors—maybe half a dozen. (See National Geographic readers' pictures of cats.)

Can you train cats?

Yes. Cats can learn what they're not supposed to do. If your cat has developed a habit [of jumping up on the kitchen table], there are limited ways to prevent it.

You could use a spring-loaded toy, so when a cat jumps up on something, the toy goes bang and up in the air—the cat doesn't like that and jumps down. Another reasonably benign [strategy] is to use a child's water pistol. But make sure the cat doesn't realize you've got it. Cats don't forgive, and once they realize a person is causing them anxiety or hurt, they keep away.

What do you want owners to know about their cats?

Acknowledge that cats are sociable animals to a point, but not sociable to the extent that dogs are. A lot of people who have one cat decide they would like to have another cat, thinking two cats are twice as much fun. But the cats may not see it that way.

The simple message I would like to get across is if you do want to have more than one cat, go about it in a careful way—and be prepared to give up on it if it doesn't work.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Follow Christine Dell'Amore on Twitter and Google+.

54 comments
Carole Pinho
Carole Pinho

I don't "believe" in everything this article says. I've some experience with cats and i don't think this way :)

Stephen Brown
Stephen Brown

Great Article I will share this on my facebook page for my website followers

Gina Waters
Gina Waters

Eh..."Cats don't forgive."  Not true.  My husband and I have lived with a menagerie of cats (we currently have 7) for 15+ years.  They are VERY forgiving; and not just about the water squirter. All of our cats came to us at various times, all rescued either from shelters or taken personally off the streets. There have been some social issues, but overall, even the 2 that hate each other the most have reached some form of detente that makes living in the same house more than just tolerable.  Sometimes I do feel like they think I'm a "big, stupid cat." Other times, I think they treat me like "Mommy."  Yet other times I seem to be nothing more than a walking food dispenser. They all have different personalities and even moods.

Bottom line: They are extremely complex and are more intelligent than you would believe, unless you've lived with multiple cats for extended periods and can testify to it (as many of you can, I see).

S. Seymour
S. Seymour

I think the researcher needs to live a little bit longer with cats.  You can't make a point only by observing them for 1 or 3 years.  You need to have the ability to connect with cats sincerely, and you may have that gift or not.  Cats are for patient people who admit and respect others behaviour and timings.   I had the honor to share my life with 2 cats for 18 years (my dad gave them to me when I was 10), they passed away and had a happy life.  Later in life I adopted 2 orphans, both were a month old, now both are 9 and I can't explain how deep and neat and good this friendship is.  My cats know when we need them the most and make me, my husband and my kids smile and cheer up in a second.  My kids already know how to connect with cats' behaviour and I am so proud we accomplished it because I am sure they will keep that for life and will share it with others.

Stephanie Sewell
Stephanie Sewell

As a cat owner, I find this interesting and possibly helpful.  But I'm not quite on board with the thought/observation that "We've yet to discover anything about cat behavior that suggests they have a separate box they put us in when they're socializing with us."  When cats are raised in a household with other animals, such as dogs, rabbits, pigs, and "treat" these other animals as "friends" (for lack of a better word) rather than food or competition, it appears they act similarly with those animals as they do with other cats as far as cuddling, playing, or ignoring as they choose, don't they?  Don't cats put everything into a "separate box"?  Even other cats?  Acting more or less self-centered/self-reliant?  They let us know when they want attention and they let us know when they don't.

Arti Rakshe
Arti Rakshe

You are so lucky to do research on cats. Thanks for this information..

Julie Martin
Julie Martin

get 2 kittens at a time no problems and they love having a friend, even everything is great!


Theodore Elperro
Theodore Elperro

That's horse hockey about cats "not forgiving" if you spray them with a water bottle, etc. I've had scores of cats over a period of 40 years and not one of them has ever held a grudge because I've used this form of discipline. In fact, sometimes I only have to hold my hand as if I'm about to spray something and the cat not only reacts by quitting whatever naughtiness she's about to do, but five minutes later is all up in my bidness with the snuggles. I'm just saying. If you're consistent (and calm!) with the disciplining tool (water bottle, can of pennies, spring toy, saying "No!", etc.) and don't randomly frighten the cat w/said tool for no reason, the cat will understand and absorb the lesson. Without hating you. Oh and p.s. that advice about being "ready to give up" when trying to assimilate cats? That is also what I would refer to as "kaka." Yes, be careful, but just as important is "be relaxed." Assume the cats will get along eventually, make sure they've got enough space (and litter) to work around each other for a week or three, and just basically leave them alone until everything smooths out. Nothing wrecks new cat relationships more quickly than humans freaking out ahead of time -- "what if they kill each other???" A trick: Pay more attention to the cat(s) you already had, and ignore the new one almost completely for the first few days, at least. "Old" cat will appreciate the affirmation of its veteran status and will feel less inclined to be aggressive about territory. "New" cat will totally get this -- don't worry about hurting feelings.


The rest of the article is not bad. :)

Kathleen Bartos
Kathleen Bartos

An interesting take on cat behavior.  Not sure if all domestic cat behavior can be explained this way.  For instance, I'm not sure why being the "big cat" in the family makes me the can opener or door opener.  That might be a little simplistic in explaining some behaviors, but still interesting.

Daniel Troko
Daniel Troko

"...-and be prepared to give up on it if it doesn't work."

There are several ways to guide cats behavior in order to get along with other cats, is a matter of patience and lots of dedication, I'm fairly sure any cat can get along with other cats with the right guidance and training, so, I think there is a very negative message at the end of this article.

Robin Alha
Robin Alha

Not surprised, our parakeets also treat us like we're birds, including sometimes trying to feed us a seed.

Simon Handford
Simon Handford

They don't have to fully understand us to exploit our treat bags and catnip containers....

Gonçalo Vaz
Gonçalo Vaz

I have a blind male cat and a female one, both are rescue cats and i loved the explanations that were given on the interview. 

I see them as they see me (except the blind one, he feels) as equals and i always tried to socialize with them the same manner they do with me but showing some predominance over them and it works, they are happy, follow me everywhere but knowing they're boundaries (not always...a cat, is a cat). 

I just think some people (that have cats) didn't understand what was said in the interview nor cats.

Milena F
Milena F

"...-and be prepared to give up on it if it doesn't work." When tons of pets are left to their on devices every day because of plain human selfishness and cruelty, I have to say, NOT a very responsible message to end with, Mr. Bradshaw. Maybe the next step for you is to study human behavior. You will see they are less smarter than we give them credit for, and they will use "be prepared to give it up", as an excuse for the rest of their lives. Oh, and they will say "I read on National Geographic. It's okay."

M. Essaid
M. Essaid

I don't think all cats behave in the same manners, I lived with cats since my childhood, since I was 3 years and before that, when didn't remember a thing or understand anything.

there are lot of kind of cats, ignoring their colors and furs, they are different in their way of thinking, their altitude toward humans and toward each other. I have 4 cats now, after losing two of them in this month. The dad of our cats clone (died after 6 years with  a normal illness) and the son which disappear without letting a trace behind him!  Of course, his name is Zoro. these two cats are unbelievable in their altitude with us humans, they saw as like their owners and nothing like you say " a big cat", they know the best time to play with us, the best time to bed and the funniest thing, they know where to pit, theses two are smart but like our best cat (a female) ever, her name is "Cristy", this is the best cat anyone dreams to have one like her, she is a human wearing a cat's uniform, she is a wise cat, a thinker, I didn't see any cat like her. The first day she comes to our home, and her method to make us loved her, she is a clever one, even my mother loved her so much and all the family cried when she died, she is a unique one, we didn't take any picture of her, but we have many of them in our brains, she a mother of cats, she remind me of "maditow" in the national geographic's documentary "The Last Lion", she grew her babies like a human, she took care of them longer than any cats in this world and even after she begun to punch them with her hands, she still supervise them. The best part in this cat, when we miss treat her child, she got angry and the person who made these treatment will never walk in peace in our house, even if he tried to kick her, she is the best worrier ever, she punch, kick and give you lot of wounds every time she saw you, and will not forgive you until you apologize to her child by make them asleep, feeding them and any activity. The second thing, how she treated her husband "Bashoto" (the six years old one), and the other wife, she didn't let any cat above 1 years old to eat until all the child under this ages fill their stomach, and after that she open the doors to the older even her husband and after all of them, she eats, she is unbelievable, and after she died our cats respect these roles and  organize themselves in groups, the younger first and the older last.  

Jane Verschuere
Jane Verschuere

cats do have a laungre and comunicate with us as under them selfs.

am living with cats for 40 years now . and now alot of words thy use to tel things.

what is weird is that nomadder where the cat come from ,country /village, part of the world .thy use thy same words to name things , like a fly for example. our what kind of thing thy want. beside this thy do use aswel a body laungre . tail, body,feets and head.

after 40 years am pretty good at it to have a basic conversation with cats.

the strangest thing i found out about cats that thy all speak the same laungre  all over the world. 

so far i now something about +- 100 cat words , but thy do have alot more then this.

Robyn Alexiadis
Robyn Alexiadis

My cats do not follow EACH OTHER around meowing urgently and pathetically as if to say, "You gave me that flavour of cat food yesterday! Give me the chicken off your plate!" They do not think of me as another cat. They think of me as a food dispenser and a door opener, and the way to get me to do my job is to purr and be affectionate.

Praveen Marselin
Praveen Marselin

my homoeopaths friends would find this to be interesting reading...

Marie T.
Marie T.

Hmm... I didn't really learn much from this, also I wish I were paid to watch cats, I do it all the time XD
I do think some cats see humans as different to cats, my cats treat me like 80% another cat and 20% piece of property.
I would agree that it's always a mother-kitten relationship in the cats point of view because excluding affection and food, when there is a visitor in the house they're usually very frightened and will sit on or next to me for comfort/protection.
But on the other hand they will guard me like a piece of furniture against other cats.

Glenda Riley
Glenda Riley

Obviously the author hasn't lived with cats - I have 2 - both rescue cats- I have had  my female since she was 5 days old,: She is still a cat, no doubt about it, and my tom since he was 3 weeks old and he is still a cat. They had 2 dogs around them when they were young. They are very sociable, and get along well. They have their hierarchy, they know I am 'big cat' and they act accordingly. They are very protective of me especially my Tom. They have lived in a household where there were 4 cats and a dog - with no problem at all. They still had their hierarchy within the company - there were some signs of stress at times, but no objectionable behavior from them. Give me cats for company any day.

Gerie Ayers
Gerie Ayers

I had a cad for 17 years of my life. Indoor only, and the only cat. I will never forget him, he was my little buddy just walking after me all over the place :)

D. Marsh
D. Marsh

Heh I have the 3:1 ratio stated in the article. 


I never understood the comparison between dogs and cats. I like each individually because they are so different from one another. I've wondered how those differences have played out given the heavy involvement in artificial selection for dogs and the certain characteristics we bred them to have for our liking. While cats seem to be merely products of their own doing - in regards to domestication. 

Ben de Pio
Ben de Pio

oh it's not a surprise. It's hilarious. hahahaha

Yoysy Olivero
Yoysy Olivero

Interesantes Datos Sobre Hermosos Ejemplares. Gracias.

Jan Kovačič
Jan Kovačič

Nice article, I have an indoor cat and it's awesome. It would never steal food from the table without my permision and it's a very chill cat. We have a nice relationship and it only lets me pet him and it trusts me completely. Cats are great because they are unique with strong characters.

David B.
David B.

Cats are good...in stir-fry and chow mein

Kurk Wilson
Kurk Wilson

The main difference between a cat and a dog.

If you feed a dog, it thinks your its King.

If you feed a cat, it thinks its your King.

And they are both right!!

Andrew Gold
Andrew Gold

Hmmmmm, my cats think I am a cat . ..  Maybe I should throw up where THEY sleep.

LM Bowland
LM Bowland

Dogs act as a pack, cats act as individuals. A dog may view a human as superior to itself due to the human having control. Cats are predators and have never changed their natural behaviour for us, but are willing to share the apex predator spot within their environmental niche (the household) with us. In essence, we're friends and cats don't trust easily. That kind of friendship cannot be bought at any price.


In retrospect, they've done an excellent job of civilising us. We had the grain, they had rat and mice control talents. We fed them in praise of those talents and thought they were entertaining when they ran through the Pharoah's palace, tripping up Ramses II in the process or pulled off people's beaded wigs. "Nef-Nef, come back with that!"

It's quite possible they think we are equally entertaining.


As for communication, I would declare my dominance over the dining room table by dumping Misha off, placing a hand to either side of the table and growling and hissing over it, making eye contact all the while.. Misha would stare at me, wide eyed. This act would keep her off the table for about three months after which she'd forget and be on it again and I'd repeat the process. Putting something bouncy on it would only have her up there, looking for more to play with. For her to remember anything for three months was astronomically miraculous.


There is a trilling purr that says 'Hi, I like you'. It starts low, gains volume as it rises, then falls again, sort of like a purred bell-curve. I've gotten two distinct reactions using the purr. The first is the cat stares in astonishment as though I've grown another head. The second is a face I can only describe as sudden recognition, (even though I've never met the cat before), and immediate approach for a scratch.


There could also be more signals than those that are physical. Cats are very vocal at times and humans just don't have the hearing to catch all the modulations. Judging by how complicated a cat's vocal equipment is, they quite possibly have a lot to say that we're not catching. Hogarth and Misha would both wander our apartment at night, yowling, but if I came out, they weren't interested in food or me. I'd go back to bed and they would start up again. They probably both heard other cats in the building that were completely out of my hearing range and were responding.

Michael Solstice
Michael Solstice

I'll ask my girl LIGHTENING when she returns from her morning neighborhood rounds and get back with ya after we talk :-)

Eliza Robertson
Eliza Robertson

As someone who has always had at least 6 cats most of my adult life(I am about 50)....I would say Cats can exist as a tribe alongside Dogs.You do need space.  If you have a group there is often a pecking order.  If introduced as young animals, they bond with both or either. My youngest kitten, Gimili, is closest to my standard poodle and my wheaton terrier. He runs with us over our three acre yard, a micro black panther. Recently I think my Dogs refused another (gentle) dog's refuge here because They were protecting the Cats (as in 'no strange dogs here').We are home most of the time. If we are not at home our dogs are kenneled in one of two kennels on our place. We do not risk trouble between tribes. The cats have two box locations. Also my two most feral cats(at 11) like to fiercely eat those chicken strips. The dogs like asparagus, and carrott. Its a bit Dr. Doolittle minus Gub GUb and Push me Pull you. Cats take longer to introduce. It is nothing like dogs. Don't give up on a crowd. The author is misguided.


m s
m s

I don't really agree with the giving up part, there are plenty of ways of getting even partially feral cats to live together in the same household and be happy and stress free, it just takes a little compromise when it comes to what humans would like to do with our homes and what the cats need in order to feel safe and happy. Most of the time it's getting them to trust us, giving them plenty of up off the ground places to be, and giving them access to windows/balconies in a safe manner. Getting a pet and then giving up is pretty much just treating the animal like a toy, and not a member of the family. If you're going to do that might as well not get any pet at all because they all require work, space, and compromise.

Jennifer Day
Jennifer Day

@Theodore Elperro  I have looked at my Cat social network in my neighborhood, and there is a clear male leader, a female leader, their followers, and an omega or lowest of the low. it is a strange concept to grasp, but cats have social lives.

Kathleen Bartos
Kathleen Bartos

@Daniel Troko

Not true that any cat will eventually get along with any other.  There are cats who simply do not like particular individual cats, while they DO like different individuals.  This is true regardless of what behavioral modifications, guidance, training, pheromones, drugs, etc. are tried.  Sometimes an individual cat just must be re-homed.

Kathleen Bartos
Kathleen Bartos

@Daniel Troko

Not true that any cat can get along with any other.  Cats can be persnickety, and they know who they like and who they don't.  I've known many to get along with some other cats but never with some different ones.

Jane Verschuere
Jane Verschuere

@M. Essaid cats do life and behave in the same madder. i had like a gang of 40 cats and thy just behave like the lions you see on your tv. so it is not ongly house cats but al the cats that behave the same . even with the same words . and thy have always a leader who will learn them al thy most now to survive. all the rest will follow her becourse the leader is always a female cat. and rare a male .

Richard Brum
Richard Brum

@Robyn Alexiadis That's because one cat does not provide food or door-opening to the other. They treat you that way because they see you as their mother, or a mother-type figure, and treat you that way. That's what the article was trying to get across.

Doc Holiday
Doc Holiday

@Eliza Robertson i've always had cats and dogs living together as friends. they'll sleep in a big pile and all.  funny stuff is the dog in the cat bed while the cat is in the dog bed, especially when that dog is 5x the size of the cat :P

Christine Dell'Amore
Christine Dell'Amore

@m s Thanks for the comment. John was saying that it's hard to tell if a cat is stressed, often until it has medical problems like cystitis. 

Simon Handford
Simon Handford

@Kathleen Bartos @Daniel Troko  

"One solution is to examine the cat's social lifestyle, instead of pumping it full of drugs. [For example, that could mean making sure] two cats that [don't get along] live at opposite ends of the house. Quite often the whole problem goes away.

      I live with 3 cats, each with their own special personality and level of understanding, and though they originally started out flat-out hating each other they, at the very least, get along. I think the most ironic part is that though they'd swat and hiss at each other, even at the beginning they cared for each other when things got serious. Once, I accidentally stepped on a cat's tail, and the yelp that ensued brought the other cats to where the incident had taken place, as if to say, "Alright, we heard the scream, who do we have to slice to bits? Who's hurting who?". On a serious level I've seen comradery among cats, that they'll protect each other, even if when they're playing their little games of who-owns-what, they're enemies. They're like humans with fur and claws and cute meows. Enough said.

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