Secrets You Never Knew About Your Cat

No matter how much time you spend with your cat, he probably doesn’t get much easier to understand (unless, of course, you’ve chosen a cat who acts like a dog). Your cat keeps all kinds of secrets. Do you want to know how he really feels about you petting him? Or would you like to discover the real motives behind his vocalizations and body language? Or perhaps you just want to know whether your cat really loves you as much as you love him.

Then, read on to check out the most interesting secrets you never knew about your cat.

1. Your cat isn’t necessarily purring because he’s happy

cat lying down
Cats purr when they’re happy. But they purr for other reasons, too. |

Most cat owners assume when a cat purrs, he’s happy. But scientists have learned this common observation doesn’t always hold true. As Wired reports, nobody has determined for sure why cats purr. They seem to purr “when they’re pleased and feeling good. But that’s not always the case.” The publication adds, “Some cats also purr when they’re hungry, injured, or frightened.”

Scientists also aren’t sure exactly how cats purr. They use their larynx and diaphragm muscles as they inhale and exhale. But researchers haven’t yet identified exactly how the cat’s central nervous system generates and controls the contractions involved.

Cats might purr in stressful situations as a form of self-soothing. And they purr at a frequency of about 26 Hertz, in a range that actually promotes tissue regeneration. That means purring could play a vital role in a cat’s bone health.

2. Your cat doesn’t understand you the way a dog would

Man in sweater holding ginger cat
Cats don’t understand their owners the way dogs do. |

We all know cats and dogs are different. But cats don’t understand humans the way dogs do, according to cat behavior expert John Bradshaw. Bradshaw tells National Geographic, “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.”

But Bradshaw explains the same doesn’t hold true for cats. “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.”

He adds, “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.” Cats also don’t love their owners in exactly the same way that dogs do — but you probably already knew that if you have an aloof kitty at home.

3. Your cat definitely doesn’t understand your attempts to train him

Smiling woman playing with her cat and holding a book in the living room.
When you try to train your feline, you’re likely confusing him. | 

If your cat doesn’t understand how to socialize with you, then it follows that he doesn’t understand a lot of the things you do. But as Wired learned from veterinarian Tony Buffington, a stressful home environment negatively affects your cat’s health. So you should probably adjust your behavior.

When your cat claws at the couch, for instance, it doesn’t help to shout at him or squirt water. Your cat can’t connect your behavior to his scratching. So, as Buffington puts it, “to the cat, you’re this crazy primate who is attacking him for no reason.” Not only do you fail to discourage your cat from scratching at the couch, but you frustrate the cat, who is only expressing his natural feline instincts.

So what does Buffington recommend instead? Train the cat using his environment. Put double-sided tape on the corner of the couch. Then, put something more attractive nearby — perhaps a scratching post covered in catnip. When your cat does what you want, reward him with a treat. “You let the house provide the negative reinforcement, while you provide the positive reinforcement.”

4. Your cat probably thinks you’re dumb — or at least big and clumsy

Young man befriending a cat on the streets in Tuscany
Your feline probably thinks you’re big, clumsy, and unpredictable. | Viviani

While Buffington explains your cat thinks you’re a huge, unpredictable being, other veterinarians and behaviorists have their own interpretations of cats’ views of their owners. Some animal behaviorists have posited that cats think humans are just dumb cats. But Bradshaw tells National Geographic he doesn’t quite agree with that theory.

“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,” he explains. But he does say your cat probably thinks you’re clumsy, even if it’s not your fault that the cat is always underfoot. “Not many cats trip over people, but we trip over cats,” he points out. 

5. Your cat’s behavior toward you mimics the mother-kitten relationship

cat holding human hand
Cats exhibit many behaviors that have their root in the mother-kitten relationship. | NitikornIstock 

Many cats do strange things, such as kneading their owners’ laps. Bradshaw explains these behaviors aren’t really as strange as they seem. “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,” he explains.

Kittens learn to raise their tails, rub against their mothers, knead, and purr. In return, the mothers groom the kittens. That positive reinforcement explains why your cat probably exhibits a few of those behaviors to communicate with you. Bradshaw adds, “So they’re using bits of behavior already in their repertoire to communicate with us.”

6. Your cat vocalizes to communicate with you

Man strokes sleeping cat
If your cat is vocalizing, he’s trying to communicate with you. |

Another way cats communicate with their human families is by vocalizing. Bradshaw explains, “Cats learn specifically how their owners react when they make particular noises.” So they use that knowledge to get what they want. Your cat probably knows what sounds to make to get you to walk into a room, to pour some more food into the bowl, or just to get you to pay attention.  A cat who lives with multiple humans also learns what works with each member of the household.

Just acknowledge your cat has you wrapped around his finger (or claw). Many cats know how to get their owners to give them more food — even when they don’t really feel hungry. Work with your veterinarian to figure out when and how much you should feed your cat. And then stick to the plan, no matter how cute Fluffy is when he begs for more food.

7. Your cat only meows at people

Mewing black kitten in boy's hands
Once they’re out of the kitten phase, cats only meow at humans. |

While we’re on the topic of your cat’s vocalizations, you might find it interesting to learn cats only meow at people, not other cats. As the ASPCA reports, “Adult cats don’t actually meow at each other, just at people.” As a kitten, your cat probably meowed at his mother to let her know he was cold or hungry. But once cats grow out of the kitten phase, they no longer meow at other cats. But they continue to meow at people — probably because, as we outlined above, meowing gets them what they want.

All cats meow to some extent. Some breeds are prone to excessive meowing and yowling. But for the most part, your cat will meow at you to greet you, to get your attention, to ask for food, or to be let in or out. Cats who meow excessively might have a medical condition that makes them feel hungry, thirsty, restless, or irritable. So if you suspect something is wrong, you should consult your veterinarian. 

8. Your cat might be more stressed out than you think

cat frowning in grass
Your cat might be stressed. |

Most people would assume an animal who spends most of his or her days lounging on the couch has little to be stressed about. But that’s not necessarily the case, especially if you have more than one cat or if your cat regularly encounters another cat.

Bradshaw reports your pet cat could be under a lot of stress if he doesn’t get along well with another cat in your home or in the neighborhood. And Buffington notes cats aren’t particularly social animals. In the wild, they hunt alone. Another cat might seem less like a friend and more like competition.

Psychological stress can cause or worsen medical problems, such as dermatitis and cystitis, which can have a major impact on your cat’s health. Bradshaw advises cat owners, “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.” He adds, “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.” 

9. Your cat might not like the places you’ve chosen for the food bowl or litter box

woman doing yoga with cat
Just because you like the arrangement of your home doesn’t mean your cat does. |

Buffington tells Wired another way you’re unintentionally adding stress to your cat’s life is by choosing the wrong spot for the food dish, water bowl, or litter box. Don’t put any of them next to the refrigerator, the washing machine, or the dryer. According to Buffington, the fridge fan or the spin cycle “sounds like a monster growling at them while they eat or poop.”

You should put each of these items in calm, quiet places. And ideally, you should choose a space where your cat has an escape route if he feels threatened.

Also, keep a proverbial eye out for sights that might stress out your cat. Buffington explains cats get curious about other animals. But if no visual barrier separates them from the dogs, cats, horses, or other animals outside, your cat will feel threatened. “Cats don’t understand glass, but they do understand height,” Buffington explains of sliding glass doors or tall windows. He advises giving your cat access to high places to observe his surroundings. 

10. Your cat can get high not only with catnip, but possibly with a few other plants, too

Orange cat eating catnip
If your cat doesn’t respond to catnip, he might like one of these alternatives. | 

Wired reports most cats love catnip. (And most cat owners enjoy watching what happens when their pet sniffs the fragrant herb.) And giving your cat some catnip can actually help indoor cats, who get stressed by a lack of activity.

But not all cats freak out when exposed to catnip. Some don’t react at all. Fortunately, scientists have identified three other plants that emit chemical odors that, as Wired puts it, are “capable of turning your furball into a puddle of purr.”

Many cats respond to silver vine, Tatarian honeysuckle, or valerian root in the same manner you’d expect of a cat exposed to catnip. And some cats who don’t react to catnip do react to one of the other stimulants. As Wired explains, “That’s good news for cat owners whose pets don’t respond to nip and are looking for some chemical alleviation for the homebound cat blues.”

11. Your cat sees the world very differently from the way you do

Little orange cat lying down in to the bed.
Your cat’s vision is very different from yours. |

We aren’t just talking about philosophical differences here. Wired reports cat vision is actually very different from human vision. You can check out the photos from artist artist Nickolay Lamm to see for yourself. Lamm consulted with veterinarians and ophthalmologists to figure out how things look to your cat.

He learned cats have broader visual fields than we do. (They see about 200 degrees instead of the 180 that we can see.) But their visual acuity isn’t as good as ours. Wired explains, “The things humans can sharply resolve at distances of 100 to 200 feet look blurry to cats, which can see these objects at distances of up to 20 feet.”

But cats have the advantage in dim light. “Instead of the color-resolving, detail-loving cone cells that populate the center of human retinas, cats (and dogs) have many more rod cells, which excel in dim light and are responsible for night-vision capability.” Rod cells also “refresh” more quickly. So cats pick up very rapid movements.

They also see colors differently than we do. Feline photoreceptors are most sensitive to wavelengths in the blue-violet and greenish-yellow ranges, but they can see a little bit of green. However, cats are mostly red-green color blind, like many humans. 

12. Your cat loves boxes — and might even benefit by having them around

British shorthair cat in the box
Cats love boxes. And one around might help your cat deal with stress. |

Many cat owners have watched their cat quickly commandeer a box, regardless of its size, location, or what it originally held. Wired reports behavioral biologists and veterinarians haven’t determined for sure why your cat loves boxes so much. But they’ve come up with a few compelling theories.

The first? Cats feel comfortable and secure in enclosed spaces. Many cats hide when faced with an unfamiliar situation or new surroundings. A box might just make the ideal hiding place for your cat to destress.

Another interesting theory? Cats “really suck at conflict resolution.” So, Wired explains, “Rather than work things out, cats are more inclined to simply run away from their problems or avoid them altogether. A box, in this sense, can often represent a safe zone, a place where sources of anxiety, hostility, and unwanted attention simply disappear.”

And a final explanation? Cats seem to like small boxes (and other seemingly uncomfortable spots) when they get cold. A confined space forces the cat to ball up, which helps it to preserve body heat. 

13. You shouldn’t pet your cat’s belly just because it’s exposed

kitten sleeps on the back like a log
Your cat’s belly is the most vulnerable spot on his body. |

Most people like petting a cat. But you need to take cues from your cat as to when it’s OK to touch. If your cat rubs his face or his shoulder against you, you can pet that part of his body. Just don’t interpret other cat behaviors — such as lying on his back with his stomach exposed — as an invitation for petting.

A cat exposing her belly is simply signaling that she trusts you, not that she wants a belly rub. Similarly, you shouldn’t assume a cat who’s curled up next to you — or even in your lap — wants to be picked up. 

14. Your cat might not actually be showing affection by rubbing against you

Grey and white striped cat rubbing or cuddling against brown cowboy boots and jeans affectionately
If your cat rubs against your leg, it might just be so he can mark you as his territory. | 

Vox reports many cat owners interpret it as a sign of affection when their cats rub up against their legs and ankles. “Many cats, for instance, will rub up against the leg of their owner (or another human) when the person enters a room,” Vox explains. You might think your cat is saying he loves you when he rubs against your legs.

But as Vox explains, “Many researchers interpret this as an attempt, by the cat, to spread his or her scent — as a way to mark territory.” Scientists who have observed semi-feral cats noted they rub against trees and other objects in the same way, depositing pheromone-laden secretions that come out of their skin. 

15. Your cat might not actually like being petted

Man sitting in an armchair, holding his pet cat
Not all cats like to be petted. |

Most cats tolerate petting at least occasionally. But that doesn’t necessarily mean cats like being petted. In fact, researchers have collected some evidence that some cats dislike being petted. And if your cat tolerates your petting despite his distaste for it, that might actually elevate his stress levels.

A group of researchers measured cats’ levels of stress hormones, with the intention of figuring out whether having multiple cats in the same household is a bad idea. They weren’t able to prove that multi-cat households are a bad idea. But they did find that “the cats who allowed themselves to be petted had higher stress levels afterward than the cats who disliked it so much that they simply ran away.”

16. Your cat really does want to bond with you

kitten with blue eyes
Your cat really does want to spend quality time with you. |

You could read all of this and think your cat really just wants to be left alone in a quiet house, with plenty of food, catnip, and toys. But that’s not the case. Buffington promises despite your cat’s lack of social skills, domestic cats really do want to bond with their humans. The best ways to bond with your cat include petting, playing, and food.

You can also create routines you repeat each time you come and go from your home. Say goodbye to your cat when you leave. And say hello when you come home again. Cats don’t need hours and hours of hands-on time with you each day. Just make sure you give your cat some quality time to bond with you each day.