By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 15 April 2011)
Physiological evidence and behavioural observations indicate that cats experience many of the same emotions humans do, though perhaps not the complex social permutations of those emotions.
Cats appear to show love through a variety of behaviours, including affectionate body contact, seeking or attempting to provide comfort, bringing presents, and grieving the loss of someone close.
Unlike dogs, cats usually don’t attempt to appease their owners, and thus can seem indifferent or aloof. Cats do make a number of affectionate gestures, however, including head butting, sitting on a lap, purring, touching noses, and rubbing against people and other cats.
When cats rub against other cats, it’s called allorubbing, and it serves to reinforce a group bond and identity by transferring scents. Allorubbing can be likened to a hug or a handshake among humans, and whencats engage in this behaviour with people, they’re indicating that they view those people as part of their clan.
Giving and Receiving
Modern domestic cats tend to place owners in the role of surrogate parents and themselves as permanent kittens that are fed, groomed, and comforted when upset. But many cats attempt to care for their owners as well. This may take the form of bringing “presents,” which tend to be either dead rodents and birds or live prey animals. In the latter case, it has been speculated that the cats are attempting to provide their inept human companions with some much-needed hunting practice, much as a mother cat would do for her kittens.
There is also widespread anecdotal evidence for the fact that many cats will attempt to provide comfort to unhappy people by rubbing against them, purring, sitting on their laps, winding around their legs, and engaging in other behaviours targeted specifically to the unhappy individual. Of course, there are some cats that don’t seem particularly inclined to comfort anyone, but the same can be said of certain people.
Love of Other Animals
Female cats are among the best mothers in the animal kingdom, and even tomcats have been known to provide their mates and their own kittens with affection and care, though this is quite variable from one tomcat to the next. Groups of feral female cats, often blood relatives, usually raise their young collectively.
Feral female cats not only nest communally, but also nurse, groom, and guard one another’s young, and act as midwives through the birth process for other females, cleaning the mother and the newborn kittens. Many cats have also adopted and nursed baby animals of other species, including dogs, mice, squirrels, and pandas.
Cats display many signs of grief when they have lost a loved one. When a mother cat’s young kittens are taken away from her, she will search frantically and call for them.
Many cats whose owners have died have showed signs of profound grief, in some cases becoming severely withdrawn and even refusing food. This indicates that cats are capable of experiencing something more than “cupboard love” for their owners. Owners have also reported cats grieving after the loss of other household pets.
Of course, not all cats will grieve deeply; some get over things more quickly than others. Like people, individual cats experience grief in different ways and at different intensities.
Evidence suggests that cats can experience many of the same feelings that people can, though they can’t analyze them or seek meaning from them in the way that humans do, because this requires the capacity for abstraction. Cat owners rely primarily on observations of feline behaviour to determine which emotions a cat may be feeling, but there is also physiological evidence that cats experience many of the same emotions as humans:
- Biochemical changes that occur in the brain with certain emotions such as pleasure or fear in humans also occur in cats, and cats respond to the same mood-regulating neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin, etc.) as people do.
- Some pharmaceuticals that are designed to treat mood disorders in humans such as depression and generalized anxiety are also effective for cats.
- Damage to certain brain structures that regulate fear, rage, and other emotions has similar effects on both people and cats.
- Cats and many other animals can experience depression, which may override their basic survival instincts, such as the urge to eat, if it’s severe enough.
Developing a greater understanding of feline emotions has helped animal therapists adopt more effective treatment strategies to address behavioural and mood problems.
The Range of Feline Emotions
Emotions expressed by cats include simple feelings of joy, sadness, anger, fear, anxiety, excitement, affection, frustration, pleasure, and contentment. Many people assert that cats display even more complex social emotions, such as compassion, contempt, embarrassment, jealously, and love.
Charles Darwin believed that differences between humans and animals are quantitative but not qualitative. In other words, the experiences of humans and animals fall along different points of a continuum of consciousness, but they are on the same continuum.
There are those who continue to argue that animals don’t experience emotions, despite mounting evidence against this view. Many of these individuals have only observed animals in laboratory settings where their behaviour is unnatural due to stress, pain, and lack of social interaction.
People may also cling to the view that animals are incapable of experiencing feelings to justify particularly inhumane animal experimentation. In addition, there are those who fear that if people come to believe that animals have emotions, they will no longer find it acceptable to engage in current hunting and farming practices. However, many organic farmers have recognized that well-treated animals in low-stress environments are more productive and healthy.
Differences Between Human and Animal Emotions
A primary difference between the emotions of people and those of animals may be that humans can analyze their emotions, and even have emotional responses to their own emotional responses, whereas animals are unlikely to generate such a feedback loop. Humans can engage in metacognition because they have a level of self-consciousness that cats don’t possess, which enables them to think about the meaning of their emotions as well as their current and future implications.
There is plenty of evidence that cats do indeed experience emotions, but awareness of this creates a risk that feline behaviours will be misinterpreted due to the tendency to anthropomorphize. Owners may project complex feelings and motivations onto their pets that the animals aren’t capable of experiencing, or misinterpret an animal’s motivations and feelings because they don’t understand the differences between animal psychology and human psychology. For example, owners often believe that their cats urinate on the floor out of spite or to punish them for something or other, but this behaviour actually results from anxiety, territoriality, illness, dislike of a particular brand of cat litter, or problems with the litter box.
A cat that is angry is more likely to show it impulsively by lashing out, rather than by planning an indirect revenge such as soiling a piece of furniture. But even such aggressive responses usually stem from fear rather than rage. In many cases, the cat is simply launching a pre-emptive strike against someone she views as a threat.
Overall, evidence indicates that cats can experience many of the same emotions that humans do, including some of the more complex ones such as love. However, it is a mistake to assume that the emotions underlying cat behaviours are always the same as what a person would likely be feeling if he were to behave in a similar manner.
For more articles on the way cats think and the reasons they do the things they do, visit the main Cat Psychology, Communication, and Behaviour page. For a full list of cat articles, see the main Cats page.
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