What Do Animals Think Cars Are?

What Do Animals Think Cars Are
Fact Checked and Reviewed by: Mark Rhodes, Ph.D. - Wildlife Biologist
Dr. Mark Rhodes holds an MS in Fisheries and Wildlife along with a Ph.D. in Wildlife Ecology. He helps maintain our editorial standards of accuracy and quality. You can read more about Dr. Rhodes here.

Human civilization has had a significant impact on the world around it. Where once were forests or open valleys we now have large cities. From using horses for transportation, we now use cars.

Even in the most remote places, where there are no roads the chances of seeing a car are quite high, and for human beings, these moving vehicles are part of normal life, but what about animals?

What do animals think cars are?

Most animals don’t understand the concept of cars like humans do. Animals like deer, birds, rodents, and even wild safari animals see moving cars as large animals or predators. Domestic animals like cats and dogs are more likely to associate cars with humans, and a pet is capable of associating a car with their owner.

Of course, nothing is set in stone, and we don’t know for a fact that all animals see cars as large beasts.

Like do birds even know what cars are, and what about cats and dogs? So, let’s try to dive deeper and see how animals might be perceiving cars!

What Do Animals Think Cars Are?

Unfortunately, when it comes to animals and what they think of cars, there hasn’t been a lot of research done on the matter.

We know that animals do think and feel and we know that they perceive the world around them in similar as well as different ways compared to us.

While we do rely on our senses, most animals have a better auditory perception. They also have a better sense of smell and taste. Thanks to this olfactory system animals can perceive chemicals originating outside itself, meaning their environment,

Additionally, some species like birds and dogs can detect ultraviolet light, and others can see when it’s dark. Nearly all mammals have sensory tactile hairs like whiskers.

These whiskers help animals navigate the world, and according to Ryan Llera, DVM, they “transmit information to sensory cells when they detect objects or movement.”

As you can imagine, each animal can use their heightened senses to analyze cars, and even if they don’t really understand the concept of cars as we do, they can make an assumption on whether cars are dangerous or not.

I also think it’s important to differentiate between a moving and an unmoving car because these two states can elicit different responses from animals. Whether the car is a constant presence in the day-to-day life of said animal should also be considered.

More so, each animal’s experience with a car or any moving vehicle will differ. If animals have been desensitized to cars then they are less likely to feel fear. If their associations are negative then they are more likely to act aggressively or avoid cars altogether.

That being said, I think it’s safe to assume that for the most part animals think that cars, especially moving cars are dangerous, because of the size, speed, and sound they produce.

Do Animals See Cars As Predators?

So, if animals are more likely to see cars as a potential threat, does this mean that they view these vehicles as predators?

Well, we can’t know for sure, but prey animals are more likely to view cars as potential predators, or at least something to be avoided. Let’s take squirrels for example.

According to National Geographic “when trying to cross the street, squirrels alarmed at the sudden onset of a car will begin to dart back and forth in a lane, which can put them in a deadly path.” So, when confronted with a moving vehicle squirrels use the same tactic they’d use with a predator.

Even if an animal doesn’t view a car as a predator we can agree that they find them scary. So, it comes as no surprise that deer usually freeze when a roaring car with flashing lights suddenly appears before them as they were simply trying to cross the road.

So, if a prey animal perceives cars as something dangerous does this mean that other predators view cars as competition?

Well, we can’t be sure, but it’s more likely that wild predators like tigers are more likely to find cars, like safari jeeps, for example, threatening. Because of their own predatory nature, instead of running away, they can act aggressively towards cars, especially if they have young cubs to defend, or the people in the vehicle are drawing too much attention.

Do Animals See Cars As Animals?

Again, there’s no clear-cut answer to this question, and we can only make assumptions here. One thing is clear, however, that animals can make certain associations when it comes to cars.

For example, if a bear suddenly finds a parked car it might walk right past it, or it will start sniffing the air around it in an effort to understand whether this new object in front of it is edible meaning prey, or dangerous meaning predator.

Once the bear realizes that the car has nothing to offer, it will most likely become as irrelevant as a random rock. If the car is filled with food or food-like smells, then the bear will most likely try to break in.

According to Colorado parks and wildlife, “bears broke into cars 484 times from 2019 to 2020.” So, if a bear successfully retrieved food or something edible from a car once, then chances are they’d do it again.

We can also assume that if the car that a bear was trying to inspect suddenly began moving then the sound and the size of the car itself would probably scare even the hungriest of bears, creating a negative association that would deter a bear from coming close to another car or the same car ever again.

Do Birds Know What Cars Are?

It should be clear by now that most animals don’t see cars the same way that we do, but that doesn’t stop them from associating these moving vehicles with something positive or negative through their own bad or good experiences.

It seems that some birds understand that cars pose a serious threat to them, so much so that the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma found that Cliff Swallows have developed a shorter wingspan over time. While we don’t know why this happens, it may help them dodge oncoming traffic more effectively.

Ecologist Charles Brown said that “over 30 years, you can see these birds being selected for their ability to avoid cars.”

Another study by the University of Quebec at Rimouski has found that birds understand that some roads have higher speed limits than others.

According to researchers, these birds seem to “treat cars as predators, and realise that in some parts of their environment the predators are more dangerous than in others.”

In other words, birds can associate cars with risk, and in certain areas, the risk is far greater than in others. But perhaps not all birds see cars as a predator but instead as a tool to get to their food.

As you can see in this video these crows living in a Japanese city use traffic to crack nutshells.

A study was done by the University of California to prove whether this was simply a coincidence, but the results were quite inconclusive.

What Do Dogs See Cars As?

When it comes to how animals perceive cars, dogs are very interesting animals, because some dogs chase cars, others might avoid them in fear and there are dogs that will happily enter them or wag their tail knowing that their owner is about to come out of the approaching car.

When it comes to chasing, Hillspet explains that cars or other moving vehicles “spark that natural instinct in which a dog recognizes the vehicle as prey they must run after and capture.”

This type of reaction is often seen in stray dogs that will run after cars barking, or dog breeds that were bred to hunt.

But what about fear and excitement?

Associative learning is the main mechanism by which dogs and cats learn. Here’s an example, if you want to understand the basic principle of associative learning.

If you put your hand on a stove and get a burn you will learn to associate the stove with pain and avoid touching it in the future.

This means that your dog or any dog can learn to like or dislike cars. If your dog has a positive association with your car then they are likely to see the car as an extension of their owner that takes them to cool places, like the great outdoors.

They might also develop a negative association if the car transports them to the vet clinic.

Fear of passing cars and the sound of cars can also cause anxiety and make dogs bark and lunge forward or away from cars, in which case one might say that a dog perceives cars as a threat, to their territory, to their own, or their owner’s safety.

Can Cats Differentiate Between Cars and Animals?

While there’s no definitive answer here, one might say that domesticated cats probably can differentiate between unmoving cars and animals, simply because they can spend a whole sunny afternoon sleeping on car rooftops.

During the winter cats will also see cars as shelters since many strays will end up crawling up inside a parked car to enjoy some of that warmth coming from the car’s engine. That’s why it’s important to check your car’s engine and tires before you head off.

So, what about a moving car?

Since cats are both considered prey and predator they are far more timid compared to dogs, so whether they do see moving cars as animals or don’t, they know they can be dangerous.

The noise, the lights, the size, and the speed are enough to convince cats that they should avoid cars.

Pet cats, just like pet dogs can also positively associate a car with their owner. Some cats will hear the family car approaching and they’ll run to meet their owner.

So, in other words, it’s all relevant to their experience, but even if a cat has a positive association with one car that doesn’t mean they won’t be cautious or fearful of an approaching vehicle.

Closing Thoughts

As you can see things might be more complicated than you initially expected. It’s easy to say that animals don’t know what cars are and there’s definitely some truth to that.

You can also claim that animals see cars as predators or other animals and there can also be some truth to that.

It’s also true that some animals see parked cars as objects and the moment the car starts driving the same animals will fly or run away terrified.

One thing is certain however, animals don’t see cars the way we do!