To Cats, We're Big Mom Cats, Whom They Can Control Even More Than They Did Their Own Moms

By Gabrielle Jonas on January 14, 2014 1:08 AM EST

So says a new book about cats and their perceptions of the humans who own them. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Cats think of their human owners as enormous nurturing cats, animal specialists argue, claiming felines interact with their owners with their mothers in mind — in other words, not unlike how many men think of their girlfriends or wives.

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In his new bookCat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet, Dr. John Bradshaw, Director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol, argues that cats will interact with humans as they do with other cats — but not just any cat: "The most likely explanation for their behaviour towards us is that they think of us as part mother substitute, part superior cat," Bradshaw told the International Science Times in an email interview.  "Almost all domestic cat social behaviour must have started out as mother-kitten behaviour. Their ancestors were solitary, territorial animals, and the only friendly behaviour between two cats would have been between mothers and their kittens." Bradshaw added that encounters between male and female wildcats were hardly friendly.

In his book, Bradshaw argues that cats do not, as many cat-owners believe, bring mice into the house to feed their human owners, imagined by the cats to be big babies. "It seems implausible that cats think of human beings as their kittens, given the size difference between us," Bradshaw said. "On the other hand, it is logical to assume that they regard their owners as mother substitutes. Much of the cat's social repertoire appears to have evolved from mother — kitten communication."

As far as their attitude toward humans are concerned cats have ways of showing us that we have exalted status. "That they rub on us without necessarily expecting a rub in return, and the apparent exchange of grooming when they lick us and we stroke them, suggests that while they do not regard us as their mothers, they do acknowledge us as being in some way superior to them," he said. "Perhaps this is simply because we are physically larger than they are, so we trigger in them behaviour that they would under different circumstances direct towards a bigger or more senior member of their feline family."

Bradshaw notes that feline behavior indicates that "they take our greater size and upright stance into account when they interact with us." How does he know this? "Many cats routinely jump up on to furniture to 'talk' to their owners, and many others would probably like to do so, but recall that their owners haven't approved in the past." Whether like a child who cares about what its mother thinks, or like a subservient cat to an alpha hunter in a colony, our cats do care, to some degree, of what we expect of them. "Perhaps it is because we control their food supply, mimicking the situation in which a few individuals can limit access to food for other cats in a large feral colony," Bradshaw told the International Science Times. "These are situations that wildcats never encounter, and which have existed only since cats began to become domesticated."

Indeed, the zoologist makes an elegant argument in his book that the domestication of the cat forever altered the way cats interact with each other, which in turn, has changed how they interact with us. The once solitary wildcat was forced to become more social with other cats because human granaries forced cats together. "For the first time in history there were regularly enough mice in one place to support more than just one cat and her offspring," Bradshaw  writes in his book. "To do this, we think that they 'borrowed' behaviour that they used to perform towards their mothers when they were kittens (which is more efficient in evolutionary terms than inventing new behaviour from scratch), and started using it in adult-to-adult interactions: specifically the friendly tail-up, mutual rubbing, and mutual grooming." We humans then became the beneficiaries of the new, more social cat:  "As they started to become friendly towards us, they started to use the same behavior to communicate with us — raising their tails upright before coming up to us, rubbing round our legs, licking our hands."

Because of the dual evolutionary pressure on cats from both other cats and humans, we can't really be sure, at this point, why they act like they do, or how the perceive us. "They are using what was originally kitten-to-mother behaviour,"  Bradshaw said, "but because its context has changed at least once and probably twice over the past 10 thousand years, we can't be sure what they're thinking when they do it."

That friendliness might veer off the present evolutionary trajectory, and even reverse itself, as the evolution of cats is still ongoing, Bradshaw said. "Neutering is a selective pressure," Bradshaw explained. "These days, friendly cats that stick with their owners are likely to be neutered." Many cats that are wary of people avoid being neutered, and so become the parents of the next generation. This will be especially true of feral males — almost all pet male cats are either neutered before they're old enough to breed, or run away from home if they're not. Although friendliness as such is probably not directly heritable, ease of socialization is. "Thus the genes (alleles) that promote ease of socialization are at a disadvantage when the cats that carry them are less likely to leave descendants than those that do not," Bradshaw told the International Science Times.

But another researcher into feline ways think that feline-human interaction gets even more complex: That cats may not think of us as uber-large mother substitutes, but may be instead just be treating us as mothers as a manipulation tactic. In other words, cats cleverly mimic babies to gain our attention. In that study, published in 2009 in the journal Current Biology, behavioral ecologist Dr. Karen McComb of the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK, found that cats can manipulate humans the same way or even more effectively than they manipulated their own mothers. Cats exercise this control with a high-pitched cry mixed into a purr not unlike the adorable rumble they once used to solicit milk from their mothers. The study showed that humans find these mixed calls amazingly irritating, but almost impossible to ignore.

Other studies have shown similarities between cat cries and human infant cries. The purr mixed with a cry may parlay humans' sensitivity to cries they associate with nurturing babies. And, including the cry within the purr could make the sound more jarring and therefore more difficult to ignore over time. While the felines used those kind of cries around their owners, they rarely made the same cries in front of strangers. Either they figured it wouldn't lead to anything, or maybe they were just too dignified. The cries occurred at very low 27 Hz decibels in cats' normal purring, but, McComb suggested, they exaggerated them strictly for our benefit.

Of course, she isn't the only animal researcher to be confounded by cats. In a 2007 study in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, researchers from the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Mexico, put 28 cats (from one to seven years old) to the test; the Ainsworth's Adapted Strange Situation Test, that is. They found that cats behaved differently when with their owners, alone, with a stranger. While with their owner, the cats would spend "more time engaged in locomotion/exploration." They were most alert when with a stranger. When alone, they tended to be more inactive. These were almost exactly the same results obtained by Ainsworth when looking at "children attached to their mothers," suggesting that "cats can manifest attachment behaviors toward their owners." The upshot? It seems that cats do think of their owners as abnormally big, manipulate-able cats.

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