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What Do Cats Think About? Understanding the Feline Mind

Nicole Cosgrove Profile Picture

By Nicole Cosgrove

A polydactyl cat sitting on a sofa

It’s hard not to wonder what our pets are thinking about, especially when it comes to the ever-enigmatic feline. Seriously, what is on a cat’s mind when they go about their 2 AM wall-climbing sessions? Are they having deep thoughts when they stare out the window for hours at a time? What do they think about us?

It would be simpler if we were able to read our cats’ minds. Unfortunately, we can’t do that, but we can learn more about how they think, what kinds of things might go through their heads, and, yes, even what they think about humans. While there isn’t much research out there on the feline thought process (partly because cats simply “quit” research studies by walking away), there is enough to give us a general idea of what’s happening in our feline friends’ minds.


How Do Cats’ Brains Work?

There’s still plenty we don’t know about a cat’s brain, but we do know that as far as structure goes, they are somewhat akin to a human. Both contain comparable lobes in the cerebral cortex, plus a cat’s brain has brain structure and surface folding approximately 90% similar to a human’s as well.

However, instead of occupying about 2% of their body mass, like in humans, a cat’s brain only accounts for around 0.9%. But having a smaller brain certainly doesn’t make them less intelligent!

A white himalayan persian cat laying on a chair

Do Cats Think in Language?

It may seem like our cats can understand us when we speak to them, but the truth is that they are just reacting out of habit. Cats learn through habit to associate sounds and body language with certain activities and to recognize our voices. For example, if you ask your cat if they are ready to eat right before feeding them, they’ll soon come to understand that the tone and cadence that you’re using (plus your body language) are related to getting food and will then act appropriately. But they don’t understand what you’re saying to them.

They can’t understand because their brains lack the part attributed to the ability to think and understand language. Humans have a part in their brain called the Wernicke’s area that is responsible for our ability to do so. Thus far, Wernicke’s area appears to be strictly a part of the human brain, but no other animal.

“So,” you may be thinking, “since my cat speaks in meows, does she think in them too?” Well, your cat isn’t so much speaking to you as simply getting your attention. They’ve learned that when they make noise, we react. So, meowing isn’t a language, and they don’t think in it.

What Kinds of Thoughts Do Cats Have?

One type of thought your cat has on their mind is food and how to get it. The predator nature of cats is instinctive, so even if they don’t necessarily have to hunt for food, they’ll still think about getting it.

Due to their understanding of object permanence, your cat may become absorbed in thinking about an object that is out of sight. Object permanence is the ability to recognize that what’s out of sight is still there, but we just can’t see it. As an example, if you keep your cat’s food stored away where they can’t get to it, they still know it’s there. They may even spend time trying to break in to get to it. And if you move the food, your cat does have the reasoning capacity to figure out where you put it.

If your cat seems lost in thought, it may be remembering something. While felines have lousy short-term memory, their long-term memory is much more developed. As for what kind of memories your cat may have, experts believe that experiences that are incredibly negative or positive are what stick the most.

Believe it or not, sometimes your cat is thinking about you and the state of your emotions! Cats can figure out what we’re feeling and then decide how to act towards us based on that. And despite their best efforts to play it off, cats do become emotionally attached to their owners.

close up of calico cat
Image Credit: Svetlbel, Pixabay

What Does My Cat Think of Me?

According to cat behavior expert John Bradshaw, your cat thinks you are just a larger, less graceful, less furry cat. Let’s face it, your cat tries to groom you and rub against you just like they would another cat, so it makes sense they don’t realize we’re an entirely different species. And while your cat may think they’re king or queen of the home, it doesn’t mean they believe you are inferior to them in some way. Due to how their social hierarchies work, cats don’t rub against other cats they view as inferior.

Also, while your cat may engage in certain behaviors with you that it would with a mama cat, such as kneading, it doesn’t mean the cat views you as its actual mother. However, it does mean that they view you as a caregiver figure, which is why they will give you similar levels of affection as they would their birth mother.

Final Thoughts

In summary, we really have no way of knowing exactly what our cats are thinking, but we do have general ideas of the types of thoughts they can have. They may be considering our emotional well-being, or they may be remembering just where the food is so they can try to sneak some.

Whatever they’re thinking, we know that cats are intelligent — they show us every day!

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