Do Cats Feel Love and Other “Human” Emotions?

kittens sleepingThere is evidence that cats experience many of the same emotions humans do, though probably not the complex social permutations of those emotions. Cats 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.

Affectionate body contact

Unlike dogs, cats usually don’t attempt to appease their owners, so they can seem indifferent or aloof, but they do make a number of affectionate gestures, including head butting, lap sitting, purring, touching noses, and rubbing against people and other cats.

When cats rub against other cats, it’s called allorubbing, and it reinforces a group bond and identity by transferring scents. Allorubbing can be likened to a hug or a handshake among humans. When cats 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 view owners as surrogate parents and themselves as permanent kittens that are fed, groomed, and comforted when upset. However, some cats take on the parental role of caring for their owners by bringing “presents,” usually 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, as a mother cat would do for her kittens.

There is also widespread anecdotal evidence that many cats try to comfort 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 cats that aren’t 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 some tomcats provide affection and care to their mates and their own kittens as well. Groups of feral female cats, often blood relatives, usually raise their young collectively.

Feral female cats nest communally; nurse, groom, and guard one another’s young; and act as midwives during the birth process for other females, cleaning the mother and her newborn kittens. Many cats have also adopted and nursed baby animals of other species, including dogs, mice, squirrels, and pandas.

Grieving

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 show signs of profound grief after their human companions have died, 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. Many 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.

Other emotions

Evidence suggests that cats can experience many of the same feelings people do, though they can’t analyze them or seek meaning from them in the way that humans can 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 anxiety are also effective for cats.
    • Damage to certain brain structures that regulate fear, rage, and other emotions has similar effects on people and cats.
    • Cats can experience depression, which may override their basic survival instincts, such as the urge to eat, if it’s severe enough.

The range of feline emotions

Emotions expressed by cats include simple feelings of joy, sadness, anger, fear, anxiety, excitement, affection, frustration, pleasure, and contentment, and many people believe that cats display even more complex social emotions, such as compassion, contempt, embarrassment, jealousy, and love.

Charles Darwin believed that the 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 people 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.

Some people cling to the belief that animals don’t have feelings to justify inhumane animal experimentation, or because they fear that other people will no longer find current hunting and farming practices acceptable if animals have emotional lives. However, many organic farmers have found that well-treated animals in low-stress environments are healthier and more productive.

Differences between human and animal emotions

The primary difference between the emotions of people and those of animals is that humans can analyze their emotions, and even have emotional responses to their own emotional responses, whereas animals are unlikely to generate this sort of 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.

The risks of anthropomorphism

Many people know that cats experience emotions, but they often misinterpret feline behaviours due to the human tendency to anthropomorphize (ascribe human characteristics to animals). 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, many owners believe that their cats urinate on the floor out of spite or vengefulness, 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 expresses anger impulsively and directly by lashing out, not by planning revenge, and even aggressive responses usually stem from fear rather than rage. In many cases, the cat is launching a pre-emptive strike against someone she views as a threat.

Overall, the 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 behaved in a similar manner.

For more cat articles, see the main Cats page.

References:

    • Bekoff, M. (2007). Animals Matter: A Biologist Explains Why We Should Treat Animals with Compassion and Respect. Boston, MA: Shambhala.
    • CatChannel.com. (20 November 2002). “Can Cats Feel Emotion?”
    • Crowell-Davis, S., DVM, PhD, DACVB. (1 November 2006). “CVC Highlights: Dispelling the Myth of the Asocial Cat.” VeterinaryMedicine.dvm360.com.
    • Hartwell, S. (2003). “Do Cats Have Emotions?” MessyBeast.com.
    • Horwitz, D.F., DVM, ACVB. (2001). “The Neurological and Pharmacological Basis for Fears and Anxieties.” Atlantic Coast Veterinary Conference 2001. VIN.com.
    • Rubinowitz, S. (n.d.). “Do Cats Have Feelings?” PetPlace.com.
    • Schneck, M., & Caravan, J. (1990). Cat Facts. New York, NY: : Barnes & Noble Inc.

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