If you own a cat, you probably identify as something like its mother, albeit a human version, who feeds it, entertains it, and licks its fur to keep it clean (hopefully not). Unfortunately, your cat sees your pet-owner relationship much differently, according to the new book Cat Sense by English biologist Dr. John Bradshaw. It actually thinks you’re a “larger, non-hostile” cat.
Bradshaw, who has been studying the behavior of domesticated animals for over 30 years, reveals some fascinating explanations for why cats act the way they do around humans. For one, since cats have never been bred for a specific function other than looking nice, they’re ultimately less domesticated than the dog breeds humans have designed for chasing down game and helping around the house. Given that 85 percent of cats breed with feral tomcats, according to the book, the species has also stayed relatively wild. The animals’ interactions with their owners are driven less by learned behavior than by pure instinct.
When a cat kneads your body or the surface of a bed, it’s a behavior that’s meant for its mother’s belly, a message to keep milk flowing. Rubbing up against a human leg or hand is a way of treating you as another cat, “the clearest way cats show their affection for us,” Bradshaw explains. Leaving dead rats around the house isn’t a way of “feeding” their owners, but rather, the cats want a safe place to eat their kill. When they actually take a bite of the victim, they realize their normal human-delivered cat food tastes way better. And if you’ve ever seen a rat in any major city, this should be obvious.
So next time you call your cat your “baby” or chide it for being annoying, just remember—it thinks of you as a fairly pleasant roommate that just happens to be freakishly large for reasons it can’t comprehend.