Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on September 15, 2021

Have you ever gazed into your cat’s eyes and wondered what they were thinking?

Studies of how cats think are notoriously difficult to do because cats, unlike dogs, often decide they aren’t interested in being test subjects. Independent by nature, they might stop paying attention mid-test, or simply get up and walk away from researchers. Despite the challenge of finding a cooperative group of test subjects, research into the minds of cats is a growing field. 

Reading Your Cat’s Mind

You might be able to get clues to what your cat is thinking by watching their behavior. While cats have distinct personalities and some are more outwardly expressive than others, you can get hints to what is on their mind if you watch for signs. ‌

Body language. The body language your cat uses can often reveal a lot about what they are thinking. A raised tail, for example, is often a sign they are feeling happy. A gentle headbutt is a sweet sign of affection.‌

Vocalizations. Your cat can communicate with a wide range of meows, purrs and other vocalizations. Your cat might greet you with a little trill to let you know they are happy to see you. A hiss, on the other hand, shows aggression and can tell you that your cat is feeling afraid or angry.‌

Facial Expressions. Cats are known for being difficult to read, but you can pick up subtle clues to how they are feeling based on their facial expressions. Slow blinks or squinty eyes, for example, can be a sign of trust and contentment.

What Your Cat Might Be Thinking

While body language and behavior might give you an idea of your cat’s mood or immediate needs, you probably still don’t know exactly what they are thinking. Here are some possibilities:

‌“I want to be with you.” Even though they often act aloof, cats prefer to interact with people more than toys or even their favorite food. There's no need to mirror their aloof attitude to win your cat’s affection. Cats tend to prefer spending their time with people that pay attention to them.

“I’m stressed out.” Cats can feel stress, and this is evident not only in their behavior but also in medical conditions that develop as a result of stress such as dermatitis. Being away from their owners can cause psychological stress that can lead to increase in the stress hormone, cortisol.‌

“I’m the boss around here.” Most cats seem to believe they are in charge of the household, as cat owners can confirm. Cats like to call the shots. For example, cats will come when you call their name, but only if they feel like it.   ‌

“You're a big kitty.” Cats generally treat people the same way they would treat another cat. Many cat behaviors that we know and love, such as rubbing up against our legs, are the same behaviors in which they engage with other cats.

“What are you looking at?” Your cat is interested in what you are looking at. One study showed that cats followed the gaze of humans about 70% of the time. Often they will look at a new object and then to you to see how you are responding to it.

"I know my toy is around here somewhere." Unlike dogs, who think when something is out of sight that it is gone, cats understand object permanence. So if your cat’s favorite toy mouse gets lost under the bed, they’ll look for it under the bed. Even though they can’t see it, they know it’s still there and won’t give up until they find it.‌

“I wonder how Big Kitty is feeling today.” Cats like to watch their owners, sometimes even while they're sleeping. They try to gauge your emotions and figure out the best way to interact with you. They're especially interested in knowing if it's a good time to ask for food.

Enjoy the Bond

‌You and your cat have a special bond. As more research is done with cats, we're learning that our feline friends are even more socially bonded to their owners than originally suspected. ‌

Even if your cat thinks of you as another cat, if they rub up against your legs that means they like you. After all, cats don’t rub up against other cats if they don’t like them. Enjoy the compliment and let your cat know that you think they are pretty special too. 

Show Sources

‌SOURCES:

Animal Cognition: “What’s inside your cat’s head? A review of cat (Felis silvestris catus) cognition research past, present and future”; “Vocal recognition of owners by domestic cats (Felis catus).”   

ASPCA: “Aggression in Cats.” 

‌National Geographic: “What do Cats Think About Us? You May Be Surprised.”

‌Science: “Cats rival dogs on many tests of social smarts. But is anyone brave enough to study them?”

‌Scientific Reports: “The role of cat eye narrowing movements in cat-human communication.”

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