Understanding cat emotions

Do cats actually love their owners, and do they experience other emotions similar to our own? Get the lowdown on feline feelings with behaviourist Nicky Trevorrow.

Watching our cats happily play with their toys, or hearing them purr with affection is proof that cats have a wide range of emotions. But are these as complex as our own? While cats are definitely capable of feeling emotion, they may not experience it in exactly the same way that we do.

Do cats have emotions?

Research suggests that cats can feel a range of emotions, including:

  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Happiness
  • Relief
  • Frustration
  • Depression

Cats can also have an emotional response to pain, although they don’t necessarily understand what may be causing the pain itself. For example, if a cat is in pain from a urinary tract infection, they don’t understand the reason for the pain, and may link it to the location where the pain occurs; for example, their litter tray.

It is unlikely that cats feel more complex emotions such as guilt, embarrassment, jealousy or the need to take revenge. While research in feline emotions is starting to gain more interest and it’s possible for new information to change current thinking, we’re not there yet. In terms of emotions like grief, it’s possible that our cats experience this; but again, this needs to be scientifically supported before we can say for sure.

Do cats love their owners?

We certainly love our cats — but can cats feel love in return? We know that cats form emotional attachments with their owners, and it’s likely that this includes the capacity to love us. This still needs to be proven, but in the meantime, observing your cat’s body language is the best way to get an insight into how they might be feeling.

Some signs your cat loves you include:

  • Slow blinking
  • Head butting
  • Kneading
  • Chirruping
  • Sitting on your lap or close to you
  • Tail held high with the end twitching

Evolution and emotions in cats

Non-owners can sometimes assume that cats don’t experience the same emotional range that we do, not least because cats don’t show their emotions clearly. That comes down to the fact that in the wild, cats are solitary creatures. While social species such as humans and dogs evolved to communicate their emotions through facial expressions, wild cats never needed this ability. When cats do openly display a specific emotion like fear – with a fluffed-up tail and a hiss – the evolutionary purpose behind this is to drive away a threat.

Do cats understand human emotions?

While the ancestors of domestic cats had no need to understand another animal’s emotions, research has found that cats have now developed the high-level cognitive abilities needed to recognise the emotions of both their owners and strangers. Positive behaviour from their owners, including smiling, can also encourage cats to spend time sitting in our laps, purring and rubbing against us.

Cat emotions – from their perspective

So, do cats have feelings? While research clearly shows that cats experience a wide range of emotions, we need to take care not to project human emotions onto them – a habit known as anthropomorphism. Sometimes it can be tempting to do this in an attempt to explain or rationalise our cats’ behaviour. While human analogies can sometimes help us better understand our cats, often it does more harm than good. This is because it can lead us to treat our cats differently, without addressing the underlying cause.

For example, when a cat scratches a new sofa, it might be easy to assume they’re getting revenge because we forgot to feed them last night. But cats simply aren’t capable of this emotion. Instead of punishing their cat by shouting at them, owners need to consider why their cat is behaving this way. Has the furniture been rearranged or updated, and the cat is simply marking their new territory? Or has there been a change in routine that’s left them feeling stressed and unsettled? Often, the way a cat behaves is linked to a change in their environment.

Cats are also masters at hiding pain, so frequently a small behavioural change could be an indicator that something isn’t right with them. In this case, it’s a good idea to see your vet to rule out any underlying medical issues.

Put yourself in your cat’s paws

We still may have a lot to learn about cat emotions – but now we know that cats are capable of many different feelings, we can use this understanding to gain a better insight into their behaviour. Rather than expecting our cats to interact with us on our terms, it’s far better to bond with them on theirs.

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