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Behaviourist's Corner

Understanding Cats' Emotions


Your cat's purr and loving chin rubs are more than enough proof that she experiences a range of emotions, but are they as complex as our own? To help answer that question, and how it could give you insight into your pet's behaviour, we looked at the latest research and asked animal behaviourist Vicky Halls for her expert opinion.


Evolution and emotion

It can be easy for non-cat owners to assume that cats don't experience the same emotions we do; after all, they don't seem to show them like we do. But that poker face is perfectly normal feline behaviour, says Dr John Bradshaw, an anthrozoologist and creator of BBC Two's The Secret Life of the Cat. While humans evolved to show emotion through facial expressions, as a way of communicating with others, our pets are descended from notoriously solitary wild cats. It stands to reason then that when they do display emotion - such as anger or fear, with hissing, clawing or a raised, bushy tail - there's a very strong evolutionary purpose behind it: to drive away a threat.

Different, but very real

But, as you know from hearing those deep, happy purrs, this doesn't mean that your cat doesn't experience emotion at all. 'Your cat might not think and feel like a human, but she does have real, complex emotions that motivate much of her behaviour,' explains Vicky. In fact, your cat's emotions, particularly emotions like fear and anxiety, motivate many of her snap decisions and reflexive reactions. As Dr Bradshaw explains in his book Cat Sense, 'Cats live in the present, neither reflecting on the past nor planning for the future.' Meaning that your cat is even more likely to be swayed by her instinctive feelings (and make choices based on those emotions) than most humans are.

What is love?

Nonetheless, it can feel disappointing, and even like you're to blame, when your cat doesn't always show you love and affection in the way you'd expect another human (or even a dog!) to do.

Again, there might be an evolutionary reason for this: your cat's ancestors competed for scarce resources, and so couldn't afford to consider other creatures' feelings - including those of humans. 'Put simply, the capacity to love wasn't always essential for cats to survive,' Vicky says.

But could that be slowly changing? A study in 2015, at Oakland University in the USA, found that cats behaved differently when their owner smiled compared to when they frowned. Researchers noticed that a smiling owner resulted in positive behaviours from a cat, such as purring, rubbing or sitting on their owner's lap. This didn't happen when the same 12 cats were presented with frowning or smiling strangers, leading the scientists to believe that cats can read facial expressions in their owners, and that they learn this ability over time.

'We know that cats make positive associations with their owner through pleasant experiences,' Vicky explains, 'so your cat will associate your smile with good things such as mealtimes, affectionate head rubs, feelings of security and play, for example.'

Fuzzy feelings

In a 2008 study, cat owners were asked which emotions they believed their cat could feel. Topping the list were 'curiosity', 'joy' and 'fear', while the three least likely emotions were 'guilt', 'shame' and 'embarrassment'. But, as you might suspect, your cat is likely to experience other emotions, too.

'Your cat can become depressed when she can't escape from something bad or when something good is taken away,' says Vicky. 'She can feel content when she feels safe and she can feel excited when playing, which are both feelings that could be defined as happiness. Cats also experience frustration and anxiety.

'But when we get into something like jealousy, we're veering into human emotional territory. Cats can definitely show behaviour that looks like jealousy, but this has less to do with the way that humans experience the emotion, and is more about your pet's territorial instincts kicking in when she feels as though she needs to compete for a scarce resource.'

Keep consistent for a happy cat

Vicky believes that behaviours that we consider negative, such as aggression, can be caused by your cat feeling frustrated. 'Cats learn from experience, so your cat might try to ask you for something in a way that got her the results she wanted previously. But if you're not consistent with your response, or you don't interpret the request properly, your cat may feel frustrated. That's why your pet may sometimes lash out.'

Put yourself in your cat's paws

So while you know that your cat has a range of emotions, how can you use that understanding to give you insight into her behaviour? Vicky's solution is simple: rather than loving your cat on your terms, take a moment to understand how your cat would like you to fulfil her needs.

'Step back and allow your cat to control the contact, and the duration, intensity and quality of your interaction,' Vicky says. 'Let your cat set the terms and build on that. Try not to smother her with love, and try to recognise those times when she's feeling frustrated. By gently watching and observing her body language, you can consider what you're really seeing and gradually learn to understand her complex emotions even better.'


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