National Geographic 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+.

82 comments
Andrew Kust
Andrew Kust

I haven't read one single study that "gets" cats. Who cares if they don't get us? We don't get them. 


I see other people with their cats, online, in person, etc, and it's never the same as me and all of the cats I've had over the past 30 years of my life. 


They follow me around the house, they jump onto my lap, they listen to commands and there was even a time one of them tried to "protect" me from my little nephew. 


I don't think cats are given enough credit. Sure, they have small brains and their problem solving skills are sub par at the absolute best, but there is something called emotional intelligence. Maybe not in the technical sense of the term, but cats have a sense for emotion (which I've never seen mentioned). When I was suffering from a loss, crying every day, my cat would come 100% of the times I was crying and rub against me, meow, it literally seemed like she was trying to distract me. Is it possible it was coincidence? Of course, I don't have a degree on this subject. 

Peter Campisi
Peter Campisi

This article is not accurate in the least. It's like the author never had a cat and had to write an article about something for school. Our family was raised as pet lovers and throughout my life, we've always had a full house of cats and dogs. Cats definitely treat humans differently than other cats. They treat specific humans differently. They even treat specific cats differently.


In fact, the only thing I can actually agree with this article about is that both cats and dogs can suffer from stress and it does affect their health. You can watch for signs such as changing habits or sleeping spots, not eating properly, etc...


BTW, this article makes it seem like having two or more cats is nearly impossible due to the fact that they will fight or "get stressed", etc.. This is total and utter nonsense. In the wild, they group with other cats (a clowder) and would have the same issue up on a larger scale. Sure, every once in a while a fight breaks out but 2 hours later they are sleeping on each other after licking one another. The author acts like cats are completely non-social animals and that couldn't be any farther from the truth. Wow.

Elisabetta Bruno
Elisabetta Bruno

I don't think I entirely agree with him saying they act just the same. Another study shows how cats don't "meow" to us the same way they do to other cats. They adopt a distinctive sound that they will use with their human ("owner") to get their attention.

Christina Rohrbacher
Christina Rohrbacher

No one has stated WHY they think this article is "bull". I find it pretty obvious actually. What she says is true and not very "innovative" in terms of cat research. I could have told anyone these things.

Chris Biscan
Chris Biscan

It's really weird how so many of us think this arcticle is total crap.

I have essentially lived at home the last 27 months with two cats the first year.  Then 4 more as the female had kittens.  We gave two of them away(the boys) and kept the two girl kittens and had the father fixed and his claws removed. 

There is way way way way way more to cats then this guy describes.  Given my experiences with the four of them as well as the 3 other family members who live here and are home far less then I am.  Most of what he says is bulls***.  

Anna F.
Anna F.

Cats don't forgive! Ahahahah! How true. 


Sheila Collins
Sheila Collins

I've lived with cats for my entire five and a half decades. During that time I've studied them intensively, inspired by the work of Paul Leyhausen - a researcher who REALLY observed cats. Much of this article is pure crap. It sounds like it was written by someone who started with an agenda & then tailored his observations to fit. Until this researcher spends two or three cat lifespans observing them, and I mean their entire lifespan, from kitten through to old age and eventual death, he doesn't have a clue about how cats really interact with their human families and/or other cats.

Clodeth Greens
Clodeth Greens

Then my cat is very forgiving because when ever someone steps on  his tail or something he runs away, but if you pet him we are back to being friends. Actually he only does it with me.

Kadir Olav
Kadir Olav

This is a load of garbage. Look at the feral/stray cats. They are incredibly intelligent and have sophisticated social structures. They will survive and multiply just about anywhere. Thats something dogs can not do.

Judy Farrelly
Judy Farrelly

I have three Burmese, 2 girls, 10yo & 11yo, and a little boy 18months old;  One of the girls dislikes him because (I thought) he was trying to play with her.  I thought that if she didn't run away he wouldn't chase her!  Don't know if I'm right.

Megan Morris
Megan Morris

I wish i knew what my cat was up to! She'll be all cuddly for a while and we'll have a petting fest. Then all of a sudden she hisses and tries to bite or scratch. She likes to draw blood! I don't know if she thinks she's playing or not. She's calmed down since we got the dogs, though she doesn't have much to do with them

Karry Gardner
Karry Gardner

Total crap  where certain issues are concerned . Written by someone who has purported to have studied cats for years  and yet hasn't actually supplied cat owners with anything remotely new to chew on -   on any meaningful level .

My pedigree Burmese  cats do "dog" tricks , all four sleep in a heap, are as loyal as dogs  - they interact socially and are completely different ages .

"Later, I studied cats (sic) " how much later ?About a year ago ? I have lived with them for 30 years , nothing here that makes me change my mind. They like living in prides, they are highly social, look after each others kittens, they can count ( they know how many kittens they should have and steal from another's litter to make up the shortfall ) . They completely "get" us in a different but better way than dogs do - they understand and manipulate me ( especially me) to get up in the night and feed them when others ignore them . They do forgive - they do love . My old  Cream Burmese boy just lived for us , hung on for days when he was dying , just wanted our hugs and love and died at the vets but in my husband's arms . They know about love and devotion and in a much more equal way than dogs - we are not superior to them, we just "are" just like they just "are".

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 S.
Stephanie S.

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."

Kat Rice
Kat Rice

@Chris Biscan Again, Another agree here. You've just crippled your cat! For anyone reading that has thought of declawing, PLEASE try scratching posts, scratching boards etc.. They even have little claw covers!

Molly N
Molly N

@Chris Biscan Why would you take away your cats claws (and part of his foot)? I don't understand how that would help with not having kittens again, if, as it sounds like, that is why you got him fixed.
Fixing your pet is essential to stop the overpopulation of neglected animals, declawing is cruel and absolutely completely unnecessary!
PLEASE do not do this to any other cats you may own in the future.  

Christina Rohrbacher
Christina Rohrbacher

@Chris Biscan Yeah, I'm with Alex. It is truly terrible to torture a cat by removing its claws. You don't seem to know much about cats either, as you have not given any evidence as to how this article is false.

Tamila Shultz
Tamila Shultz

@Kadir Olav  Really? So there aren't packs of wolves, wild dogs, and feral dogs doing that all over the planet?

Jeff Brent
Jeff Brent

@Megan Morris  You can pet cats until they get over-stimulated. Once they reach that point, all bets are off.  That is you need to learn how much your cat can take at once time and on a certain part of their body.

ジェイ オルソヌ
ジェイ オルソヌ

@Karry Gardner That sounds exactly like a dog to me. I've known a lot of cats over the years and they're all selfish douchebags. "They completely "get" us in a different but better way than dogs do". Ofc you say that, you're obvously a cat-person. Just like I'm a dog-person, but unlike you, I understand that we percieve our pets differently based on our likings. Sprry for my bad English, it's my second language.

Robert KASPAR
Robert KASPAR

@Karry Gardner  We have a tall skinny indoor-outdoor cat, he eats whenever and how much he wants and never puts on weight. We are probably his third owners or more, who knows. The vet says he is about 7-10 years old. We had seen him around for four or five years. Then he seems to have sort of adopted the neighbors. He'd stay there for a few days at a time and then disappear again. About two years ago he decided to stay with us. He had shown up one night at the sliding door, he had pus running down his face. He let me pick him up (he would never let me near him before)  and squeeze  out all the puss. I used peroxide and Neosporin to treat the wound. Within a week of treatment it was almost completely healed.

He is an old fighter. He has battle scars here and there and notches in his ears. He has only two fangs left. One was gone when we got him the other broke off and had to be pulled. He is very territorial, he'll beat up any cat that wanders on his territory, so I don't know about them liking to live in groups, Lyons maybe but most of the cats big and small are solidary hunters.  

Dawn Richardson
Dawn Richardson

@Diana Prince  I agree since seeing the video of the Family Cat seeing off a Viscious dog who was mauling a little 5 year old child..and then Tabby went back to see if the child was okay..amazed by this. He was injured and had to have sutures after the dog left a nasty dog bit in his calf. Could have been a lot worse. I think the dog has been since put down looked like a Staff Bull type.



Molly N
Molly N

@Julie Martin Usually when they grow up together they are very happy with each other!

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.

Molly N
Molly N

@Dawn Richardson Yes the dog was put down sadly. I hope the child develops a love for all animals despite having a bad experience as a child. 

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.

Share

Popular Stories

The Future of Food

  • Why Food Matters

    Why Food Matters

    How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?

  • Download: Free iPad App

    Download: Free iPad App

    We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.

See more food news, photos, and videos »