Anthropomorphizing Cats: Are We Reading Our Cats Wrong?

May 27, 2024 Dr. Sydney McCauley, PhD, PAS, Dpl. ACAS-N


Anthropomorphism is broadly defined as the tendency to attribute human-like traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities, such as animals or objects.1 However, the line on which attributes are only human-like can be hard to discern sometimes. Many traits are often related to the natural way a species interacts with their environment; making some characteristics for one species lower in ecological value compared with another species. For example, we, as humans, experience a range of complex social emotions such as jealousy, revenge, and remorse, and the belief that our pets do too may stem from how we perceive them.2-4 

The way we view our human relationships can sometimes determine how we care for those individuals. Recently, there has been a shift in the perception that pets are more often kept for companionship and seen as individuals or family members instead of being kept for utilitarian purposes.5,6 This is no exception for the relationship between an owner and their cat, which is often highly regarded.7,8 This has led to owners self-characterizing their relationship with their cats as either a family member, a child, a best friend, or a pet animal.2 However, several studies have indicated that we possess a limited understanding of feline behavior, emotional cues, communication, and welfare requirements.9-11

Owner-cat relationship resembles a more intimate and social human relationship

In 2021, a cat study looked at how an owner classified their relationship with their cat (family member, a child, best friend, or a pet animal) and how the cat lives.2 If we see our cat as a best friend or a child then we associate them with being loyal, empathetic, and dependent on us for love and care. That seems obvious, right? Well, the study goes on to say that these cats have owners who will less often leave them in the care of others and often manage the time when they could go outside instead of leaving a cat door open. This study also stated that owners who perceived their cats as children or family members were more likely to give access to their bedrooms at nighttime. However, describing our relationship with our cat may have a higher tendency to anthropomorphize a cat’s emotional cues.

Projecting complex social emotions onto our cats

In 2023, the same group looked at how describing our relationship with our cat might influence the interpretation of a cat’s social and emotional cues.12 A total of 1,800 cat owners were surveyed. Questions consisted of not only how owners perceive their relationship with their cat, but also owners were asked to rank how much they thought a cat could experience eight different emotions (jealousy, regret, compassion, and shame). Additionally, owners were shown several photos of cats displaying different behaviors and asked to identify them. 

Of the photographs shown, fear was most often correctly identified among all cat owners. However, aggression/frustration/irritation (offensive and defensive) was more difficult to recognize as descriptors selected varied among owners. Less than half of the participants were able to identify a cat’s positive emotion, and less than 5% were able to identify a cat’s neutral or non-emotional posture correctly. Owners who perceived their relationship with their cat as a family member, child, or best friend were more frequently assigning complex social emotions, like jealousy and compassion, to cats and giving emotions to cats that were in a neutral stature.


Anthropomorphizing our pet cats can be both positive and negative for their welfare. For instance, a cat excessively drinking water from a faucet or shower may be interpreted as funny or quirky when there may be an underlying medical issue that needs to be addressed. Positive outcomes from anthropomorphizing cats can lead to a good change in our behavior. For example, feeling guilty because you think your cat is disappointed in you for leaving the house so much might lead to spending more play time while at home. These studies have indicated the need for more education on natural cat behaviors and helping owners understand their cat’s behavior.


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About the Author: Dr. Sydney McCauley is a Board-Certified Companion Animal Nutritionist and earned both her bachelor’s and doctoral degrees at Virginia Tech in Animal and Poultry Sciences. Dr. Sydney McCauley’s research was in nutritional physiology with a focus on understanding the effects of low birth weight on glucose, fatty acid, carbohydrate, and amino acid metabolism in skeletal muscle and overall metabolic homeostasis during neonatal development.

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