Do Cats Think They’re Our Protectors? The Surprising Truth About Your Feline’s Instincts

Introduction

It’s a common perception that cats are protective of their owners and see themselves as guardians. Many cat owners interpret certain behaviors, like alertness, pouncing, and patrolling territory, as signs that their cat is watching out for potential threats and keeping them safe. There’s a popular notion that cats repay the care their owners provide by acting as loyal protectors of their human companions.

Natural Instincts

Cats have strong predatory instincts that originate from their ancestral lineage as solitary hunters. Though domesticated, cats still exhibit the urge to hunt, even when well-fed. According to a 2019 study published in People and Nature, hunting behavior in domestic cats is driven by instinct, rather than hunger [1]. Cats are also highly territorial due to their evolutionary history. They use urine marking, rubbing, and vocal cues to establish boundaries and defend their territory from other cats [2]. Overall, cats retain many of the instincts that served their wild ancestors, including strong predatory and territorial drives.

Bonding Behavior

Cats display bonding behaviors that show they form attachments with their owners. Some examples include head-butting, purring, grooming, rubbing, kneading, and following their owner around the house. Head-butting is a common bonding behavior where a cat gently bumps their head against their owner, which deposits pheromones from glands around their mouth and face. This helps mix their scents together, marking their owner as part of their territory. Purring is another way cats show contentment with a bonded human. Studies using brain scans have revealed that cats purr during positive interactions with their owners because it stimulates their brains to release feel-good chemicals like endorphins. Cats also groom their owners by licking their hair or bare skin as a social bonding behavior they would use on another cat. Kneading or treading with their paws releases soothing pheromones and helps cats mark their territory while showing affection. Following their owner throughout the home allows a cat to monitor their bonded human’s location and activities. According to research published in Current Biology, most cats form secure attachments to their caregivers that are similar in strength to human-infant bonds (source).

Guarding Territory

Cats are highly territorial animals that establish boundaries within their home ranges and actively defend these areas (https://www.vin.com/apputil/content/defaultadv1.aspx?id=3854205&pid=11196). In nature, cats will patrol the perimeter of their territory and mark it with visual and olfactory signals to ward off intruders (https://classactcats.com/blog/cat-territorial-behavior). When an unknown cat enters their space, resident cats may react aggressively to chase them away.

Cats use tactics like stalking, vocalizations, body posturing, and attacks to drive away encroaching cats. Their territorial behavior serves to protect their resources like food, shelter, and mates. Females are especially protective of their territory when raising young kittens. While cats are solitary hunters, they may share territorial boundaries with other cats and even related individuals in some cases. But cats will still actively defend the core areas of their territory.

Reacting to Threats

When cats sense potential danger, they often react instinctively to protect themselves and their territory. A common reaction is hissing, growling or swatting when they feel threatened (Source). Cats are very territorial, so perceived intruders like other cats, dogs, or even human guests can trigger aggressive posturing and vocalizations as a warning. The hissing and growling demonstrate that the cat is feeling defensive and hostile. Even a gentle, docile cat may suddenly hiss or growl when they sense something amiss.

Cats also swat or strike out with their paws when feeling threatened. This reaction aims to startle the intruder and defend their space. It’s an instinctive behavior meant to make the unwelcome guest retreat and back away. A swat conveys a clear message to the perceived threat – “don’t come any closer!” While humans may interpret this as unprovoked aggression, the cat is simply following its natural impulse to protect itself and respond to potential danger in its surroundings.

False Alarms

Cats often react defensively to sights, sounds, and smells that they perceive as threatening but that pose no real danger. Their sharp senses pick up on subtle cues that humans miss. A cat may hiss at a slight noise or movement that we don’t notice. They may spot something innocuous outside and go into protective mode. Cats can also misinterpret playful actions as threatening. If we move too quickly or make a sudden noise, they may react as if they need to defend us. Their instincts kick in even when there is no threat present.

Common triggers for false alarms include guests entering the home, dogs or other animals passing by outside, unfamiliar scents, and loud noises. Cats may hide, growl, puff up their fur, swat with their paws, or show other defensive behaviors. From their perspective, they are trying to scare off or fight whatever seems to be a potential threat. Of course, we know there is no real danger, but cats rely on instinct and can’t reason that out. So cats may frequently act protective in response to benign events that trigger their innate reaction to possible threats.

Protective Actions

Cats have been known to take protective actions to defend their owners from perceived threats. For example, Tara the cat gained media attention for saving her young owner from a dog attack. As described in this article, “What are some stories of cats defending their humans?“, Tara jumped between the dog and boy, clawing at the dog until it retreated.

Another example from the article “Good kitty: These 6 ‘hero cats’ saved the humans they loved” describes a cat named Tommy who alerted the owner after a fall out of a wheelchair. Tommy persisted in making noise and knocking things over until help arrived.

As described in “24 Times Cats Surprised Humans With Their Heroic Acts“, a blind cat named Gwen rescued her owner from a fire by nudging and pushing her owner persistently until she woke up and escaped the burning building.

Misinterpretation

One common reason why humans may think their cats are protecting them is due to anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism refers to ascribing human traits, emotions, motivations and behaviors to non-human animals. According to a 2023 study by Bouma in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, cat owners who interpreted their cat’s emotions more anthropomorphically when viewing photographs were less accurate in identifying the cat’s real emotional state [1]. As explained by The Cat Whisperer, humans tend to project their own emotions onto cats, such as assuming a cat is happy when it’s smiling or sad when it has downturned eyes [2].

When a cat exhibits normal territorial behaviors, like hissing at strangers, swatting at objects, or patrolling around the home, owners may incorrectly interpret those actions as the cat “protecting” them or their property. In reality, the cat is simply displaying instinctual guarding behaviors related to marking territory and responding to potential threats. These behaviors serve the purpose of protecting the cat’s own resources and security, not necessarily that of their human owners.

Similarly, when a cat reacts fearfully or aggressively towards unfamiliar dogs, animals or people, the owner may view it as the cat defending them. More likely, the cat is behaving territorially in response to something potentially threatening within its environment. Misinterpreting these actions as protection can lead owners to reinforce unwanted aggression or fear in their cats.

Other Explanations

While some cat behaviors may seem protective, there are alternative theories that could explain their actions. Cats have natural territorial instincts and can be wary of strangers and unfamiliar situations. Their defensive reactions may be rooted in fear or anxiety rather than a desire to actively defend their human companion.

For example, cats may guard doorways or sit in high vantage points not to protect their owners but because it allows them to survey their territory for potential threats. A cat hissing at a stranger who approaches their owner could simply be responding to the unknown person encroaching on their space, rather than sensing danger to their human.

Cats also form close social bonds with their owners and families. When a cat stays near their owner at night or follows them from room to room, it may simply be a sign of affection and wanting to be near their family member. While the behavior appears protective to owners, the underlying motivation may be companionship rather than guardianship.

Some experts argue that attributing human motivations to normal cat behaviors can lead to misinterpreting their actions. While cats may sometimes react in ways that protect their owners, they likely do not consciously think about actively defending humans.

Conclusion

In summary, there is evidence on both sides of the argument about whether cats think they are protecting us. On one hand, some of the territorial, guarding, and protective behaviors that cats exhibit seem to suggest they view us as part of their family group that needs to be protected. Their hissing at strangers or unwanted guests could be interpreted as them trying to defend their humans. However, many experts argue that cats are not focused on protecting humans specifically. Rather, their behaviors are driven more by instincts to guard their territory and resources. While their actions may sometimes align with protecting their owners, this is likely just a byproduct of cats guarding what they consider “theirs” for their own benefit. Most experts conclude that cats do not have an innate desire or understanding of protecting humans in the same way dogs have been bred to do.

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