What Are Cats Thinking?

Inscrutable cat.

“We did one study on cats—and that was enough!” Those words effectively ended my quest to understand the feline mind. I was a few months into writing Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship With Cats and Dogs, which explores how pets are blurring the line between animal and person, and I was gearing up for a chapter on pet intelligence. I knew a lot had been written about dogs, and I assumed there must be at least a handful of studies on cats. But after weeks of scouring the scientific world for someone—anyone—who studied how cats think, all I was left with was this statement, laughed over the phone to me by one of the world’s top animal cognition experts, a Hungarian scientist named Ádám Miklósi.

We are living in a golden age of canine cognition. Nearly a dozen laboratories around the world study the dog mind, and in the past decade scientists have published hundreds of articles on the topic. Researchers have shown that Fido can learn hundreds of words, may be capable of abstract thought, and possesses a rudimentary ability to intuit what others are thinking, a so-called theory of mindonce thought to be uniquely human. Miklósi himself has written an entire textbookon the canine mind—and he’s a cat person.

Agrillo studies something called numerical competence. That’s essentially the ability to distinguish a small quantity from a larger one. The test his lab uses is fairly simple. Researchers place three black dots over a desirable object (like a plate of food or a door that leads to friends) and two dots over an undesirable object (like an empty plate or a door that leads to nowhere interesting). Agrillo and colleagues then look to see if, over multiple trials, the animals can distinguish between the two quantities. Besides fish, his team has worked with monkeys and birds—all of which have been fairly cooperative. But when he tried the experiment with cats, he practically gave up.

To reduce the number of variables, Agrillo’s team always conducts the studies in its laboratory. But when owners brought their cats over, most of the felines freaked out. Even the docile ones displayed little interest in the test. Ultimately, Agrillo wound up with just four cats—and even they were a pain to work with. “Very often, they didn’t participate in the experiment or they walked in the wrong direction,” he told me. “It was really difficult to have a good trial each day.” Still, he was able to get some results. Unlike fish, which can distinguish three dots from two, the cats paid more attention to the size of the dots than to their number. That makes sense when you consider that, in the wild, cats (unlike fish) live solitary lives and that when they hunt prey, they’re more concerned about size than quantity. Counting just isn’t that important to them.

Agrillo’s work didn’t break open the mystery of the feline mind, but at least it was something. I hoped Ádám Miklósi could provide me with a bit more. He’s half the reason there has been so much work on the canine mind. In 1998, he and Duke University biological anthropologist Brian Hare independently showed that dogs can understand human pointing. Both labs conducted experiments demonstrating that when a volunteer pointed at one of two cups containing a treat, dogs almost always went for the correct cup. Though it may seem a simple test, our closest relatives, chimpanzees, fail miserably; they ignore the volunteer, pick cups at random, and rarely score above chance. The ability to follow a pointed finger isn’t just a neat trick; it shows that dogs may have a rudimentary “theory of mind”—an ability to understand what another animal is thinking (in this case, that the human volunteer was trying to show them something). The skill is so important to our species that without it, we would have trouble learning and interacting with the world around us. That’s why so many labs have begun studying the canine mind; dogs, the thinking goes, may provide clues to the evolution of the human mind.

But what about cats? Miklósi, I was surprised to learn, had also conducted the pointing test with felines. Like Agrillo, he had a hard time getting cats to cooperate in his laboratory—so he went to their homes instead. Even then, most of the animals weren’t interested in advancing science; according to Miklósi’s research paper, seven of the initial 26 test subjects “dropped out.” But those that did participate performed nearly as well as dogs had. Cats too, it appears, may have a rudimentary theory of mind.

But when Miklósi took the study a step further, he spotted an intriguing difference between cats and dogs. This time, he and his colleagues created two puzzles: one solvable, the other impossible. In the solvable puzzle, the researchers placed food in a bowl and stuck it under a stool. Dogs and cats had to find the bowl and pull it out to eat. Both aced the test. Then the scientist rigged the exam. They again placed the bowl under a stool, but this time they tied it to the stool legs so that it could not be pulled out. The dogs pawed at the bowl for a few seconds and then gave up, gazing up at their owners as if asking for help. The cats, on the other hand, rarely looked at their owners; they just kept trying to get the food.

Now before you conclude that cats are dumber than dogs because they’re not smart enough to realize when a task is impossible, consider this: Dogs have lived with us for as many as 30,000 years—20,000 years longer than cats. More than any other animal on the planet, dogs are tuned in to the “human radio frequency”—the broadcast of our feelings and desires. Indeed, we may be the only station dogs listen to. Cats, on the other hand, can tune us in if they want to (that’s why they pass the pointing test as well as dogs), but they don’t hang on our every word like dogs do. They’re surfing other channels on the dial. And that’s ultimately what makes them so hard to study. Cats, as any owner knows, are highly intelligent beings. But to science, their minds may forever be a black box.

Dogs we understand; cats are mysterious, even though they are the most popular pet


Cats are the world’s most popular pets, outnumbering dogs by as many as three to one. This popularity is undoubtedly helped by the fact that cats are simultaneously affectionate and self-reliant: They need virtually no training; they groom themselves; they can be left alone without pining for their owners, but most nonetheless greet us affectionately when we get home.

Even so, cats remain aloof and inscrutable. Dogs tend to be open, honest and biddable. Cats, on the other hand, demand we accept them on their terms but never quite reveal what those terms might be.

I’ve studied cats for years and shared my home with quite a few, but I don’t feel that this has taught me very much about what they are really like. But science has begun to provide some answers, especially about their relationship to humans. Why are cats so choosy about their objects of affection? And what does it mean when they hold their tail straight up? Read on.

Cats and humans go back a long way. DNA evidence identifies the pet cat’s ancestor as the Arabian wildcat Felis silvestris lybica and places its origins between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago in the Middle East.

Certain behavior is indicative of affection. The cues are noticeable, says John Bradshaw. (Bigstock)
It is likely that the first people to tame wildcats were the Natu­fians, who inhabited the Levant from about 13,000 to 10,000 years ago and are widely regarded as the inventors of agriculture. As such, they were also the first people to be bedeviled by a new pest: the grain-loving house mouse. Wildcats probably moved in to exploit this new resource. Realizing how useful this was — cats, after all, had no interest in eating grain — people probably encouraged them to hang around.

These were not pet cats as we know them. They would have been more like today’s urban foxes, able to adapt to a human environment while retaining their essential wildness.

Of course, the cat’s other qualities probably did not go unnoticed. Their appealing features, soft fur and ability to learn to become affectionate toward us led to their adoption as pets. Yet cats still have three paws firmly planted in the wild.

In contrast to almost every other domestic animal, cats retain remarkable control over their own lives. Most go where they please and when they please and, crucially, choose their own mates. Unlike dogs, only a small minority of cats has ever been intentionally bred by people. No one has bred cats to guard houses, herd livestock or assist hunters.

Cats can be very affectionate, but they are choosy. This stems from their evolutionary past: Wildcats are largely solitary and regard most other cats as rivals. Domestic cats’ default position on other cats remains one of suspicion, even fear.

However, the demands of domestication — the need to live with other cats, and then the forming of bonds with people — extended cats’ social repertoire.

Social behavior probably started to evolve as soon as cats began to congregate around granaries. Any cat that maintained its antagonism toward other cats would have put itself at a disadvantage when exploiting this resource.

Even today, wherever there is a regular source of food, a colony of feral cats will spring up, assuming local people allow it. Colonies can build up until several hundred cats are living close to one another.

In these colonies, society tends to be based on cooperation between genetically related females. Mothers often drive away their male offspring after a few months to avoid inbreeding, leaving them to lead solitary lives.

Where colonies consist of more than one family, these groups compete with one another. Cats seem to be incapable of sustaining a large number of friendly relationships or of forming alliances between family groups in the way that primates do; negotiation skills this sophisticated lie beyond their capabilities.

The switch to social living required a quantum leap in communication as cats became domesticated. For an animal as well-armored as a cat, a tiff might escalate into a dangerous fight unless a system of signaling evolved that allows cats to assess others’ moods and intentions. And this is precisely what happened.

For domestic cats, my research has shown that the key signal is the straight-up tail. In colonies, when two cats are working out whether to approach each other, one usually raises its tail; if the other is happy to approach, it raises its tail, too. The tail-up signal almost certainly evolved during domestication, arising from a posture wildcat kittens use when greeting their mothers. Adult wildcats do not raise their tails to each other.

Once an exchange of tail-ups has been established, one of two things occurs. Either the cats rub heads, flanks and sometimes still-raised tails before separating, or they engage in mutual grooming, which has profound social significance in many animals. Both rubbing and grooming are probably a way of cementing an amicable relationship.

The most important social skill a cat must learn in order to become a pet is, of course, how to interact with people. Even at the earliest stage of domestication, cats needed humans to protect and feed them when mice were in short supply. The cats that thrived were those that were able to reward people with their company. Yet cats are not born attached to people. They are born with an inclination to trust people only during a brief period when they are tiny.

Studies of dogs in the 1950s established the notion of a “primary socialization period,” when puppies are especially sensitive to learning how to interact with people. For dogs, this is between 7 and 14 weeks of age. The concept also applies to cats, but it starts earlier. A kitten that is handled regularly between 4 and 8 weeks generally develops a powerful attraction to people. One that does not meet a human until 10 weeks or later is likely to fear people for the rest of its life.

Do cats exposed early enough to humans have an emotional attachment to their people, as dogs do? We know that they have the capacity to feel affection for other cats, and so it is probable that their attachment to their people is an emotional one.

Most owners would say that their cat displays contentment by purring. Purring clearly does occur when a cat is contented, but a purring cat also may just be hungry, or mildly anxious. Some continue to purr even when their body language indicates they are angry. Occasionally, cats have also been heard purring when they were in distress or even during the moments before death.
Purring, then, does not necessarily reveal a cat’s emotional state. Instead, it seems to be what behavioral ecologists refer to as a manipulative signal, conveying a general request: “Please settle down next to me.”

However, other signals, may be more genuine displays of affection. Relationships between adult cats seem to be sustained mainly through mutual licking and rubbing. Many cats lick their owners regularly, but scientists have not yet investigated whether this represents affection. We know that cats that do not like each other never groom each other.

Cat owners also engage in a tactile ritual with their pets when they stroke them. Most owners stroke their cats simply because it gives them pleasure and because the cat also seems to enjoy it. But stroking may also have symbolic meaning for the cat. Most prefer to be stroked on their heads, the area toward which cats direct their grooming.

Many cats do not simply accept stroking passively; they invite people to stroke them by jumping on their laps or rolling over. They also indicate where they wish to be stroked by offering that part of their body or shifting position. By accepting stroking, cats are engaging in a social ritual that is reinforcing the bond with their owner.

While touch is very important, the upright tail is probably the clearest way cats show their affection for us. A cat approaching its owner with a raised tail will often rub on its owner’s legs. The form that the rub takes seems to vary from cat to cat: Some rub just with the side of their head, others rub down their flank, some make contact with their tail. Many walk past without making any contact or perform their rubs on an object nearby.

Because many cats rub most intensely when they are about to be fed, they have been accused of showing nothing more than cupboard love. However, few cats confine their rubbing to mealtimes, and when two cats rub, they exchange no additional reward. So an exchange of rubs is a declaration of affection.

Another way cats attract our attention, of course, is by meowing. The meow is part of the cat’s natural repertoire, but they rarely use it to communicate with each other. Feral cats are generally rather silent. While all cats are apparently born knowing how to meow, each has to learn how to use this most effectively.

Once cats have learned that their owners respond to meows, many develop a range of sounds that, by trial and error, they find are effective in specific circumstances. In this way, many cats and their owners gradually develop an individual “language” that they both understand but that is not shared by other cats or owners.

So cats demonstrate great flexibility in how they communicate with us, which rather contradicts their reputation for aloofness. We could consider some of this behavior manipulative, but only to the extent that two friends negotiate the details of their relationship. The underlying emotion on both sides is undoubtedly affection.

What Do Cats Think About Us? You May Be Surprised


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 aboutNational 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.