Do cats have feelings?
Cats get a bad rap. They’re stereotyped as cold, indifferent, spiteful — even downright evil. Many people talk about cats as if they’re soulless monsters, incapable of forming any kind of emotional attachment to their human guardians. This is massively unfair. Cats form attachments and experience affection just like other pets do; they simply express their feelings differently. Once you learn to understand them, you will see that cats really are tremendously loving animals. You’ll also be better able to express your affection in return.
Do cats have feelings? Yes. Cats experience a range of emotional states, ranging from fear and anger to contentment and love. Cats feel fear, joy and all sorts of other emotions, which they demonstrate in various ways. They also have a feeling for specific individuals: fellow cats, other animals and human beings. Cats readily form emotional attachments and can be intensely loyal.
You’ve arrived on this page because there are things you want to know about your cat’s emotional range. You may be wondering whether cats have the same kind of inner life as other animals — whether they can become attached to you like dogs, or whether their emotions are limited to “cupboard love”. You may have questions about your cat and her emotional range…
- Do cats have empathy?
- Do cats have feelings for their owners?
- Do cats have emotional attachment?
- Do cats have thoughts?
- Can cats sense danger?
You may be wondering about cat emotions and body language — how you can discern what your cat is feeling right now… Luckily, we have answers. Read on to learn more about the fascinating world of cat psychology.
Do cats have feelings?
It’s easy for a cat lover to take umbrage at this question. As a long-time cat owner, my immediate reaction is “Yes, of course, they do!” The problem is that cats don’t display their emotions in the ways most people are used to. They also respond very differently to stimuli than dogs do. Because they react in ways people don’t expect or can’t pick up on, cats have a reputation for being cold, unloving or vicious. Cats also labor under the stereotype of being completely aloof and solitary.
In actual fact, cats are not solitary creatures at all. Although cats can be very independent, they’re still social animals who readily form bonds and who need companionship. When they live in the wild, or away from the direct care of humans, feral cats form loose colonies. These may have a large number of members and are generally matriarchal, with females of breeding age dividing the nursing and kitten-rearing among them. Hunting and scavenging are communal, with cats bringing food back to their colony mates when they’ve eaten enough themselves. While certainly territorial and fond of personal space, they’re a long way from the cold-blooded parasites depicted in popular myth. Feral cats can be observed associating freely with their fellow cats and engaging in a number of social behaviors.
To a domestic cat, then, the household takes the place of the colony. For a house cat, their human carers and other pets are all colony mates. They may have preferences for certain people and find others harder to get on with. They’ll want to feel safe in their little areas of territory within the home but will also want social contact and a sense of connection. Your cat may not jump up at you wagging her tail but she may make it very clear how much she cares. Cats will express their affection in various ways, from the obvious (rubbing against your legs or jumping into your lap) to the less obvious (slinking into the room behind you and taking up residence on a high shelf to observe your activities). Once you learn to identify feline messages of affection and regard, you’ll find yourself basking in a love you never knew existed.
Cats also pick up on your emotions much more readily than you might realize. As well as raised voices or more obvious displays of emotion, cats can also detect more subtle signs such as smiling versus frowning. The way they’ll respond will vary between cats, from effusive displays of concern when an owner is crying to more tentative gestures.
As for a cat’s own feelings: a cat’s emotional life seems to be as rich and complex as you could possibly imagine. Cats become scared, lonely, angry or bored. They become anxious in new settings and happy in familiar ones. They celebrate when someone they care about returns home and grieve when they lose a loved one. They can pick up distress in others and offer support, as well as demonstrating annoyance when things aren’t going the way they want. All in all, there are few emotions a cat could not be said to have.
Do cats have empathy?
The common feline stereotype holds that cats are completely indifferent to the emotions of others, ignoring the feelings of other pets or their human caregivers. In fact, cats are highly sensitive to emotions. When you imagine life as a member of a cat colony, this makes perfect sense. Clearly, an intelligent creature that lives and co-operates with its fellows and relies on them for survival must be able to divine their feelings somehow. Without this insight, cats could not avoid unnecessary conflict, collaborate on hunting and scavenging missions or maintain useful bonds and alliances. It follows that cats must possess some form of empathy in the sense of being able to read facial and physical cues.
Aside from being able to work out what kind of mood another individual is in, do cats experience an emotional response of their own? A key component of empathy as most people would define it is to share another’s feelings. Research suggests that cats experience this form of empathy, too. A study from Michigan’s Oakland University in the US showed that cats were social and positive towards their owners when those owners were smiling. When the owners frowned and adopted a disapproving expression, the cats became more reticent and showed fewer positive behaviours (rubbing up against their owners’ legs, jumping onto their laps, nuzzling them and so forth). Interestingly, the same thing did not happen when the cats where introduced to strangers who smiled or frowned in the same way. From this, we can deduce that the cats had learned to identify their owners’ expressions and respond accordingly, which they could not do with strangers. It’s evident from this study that cats can read emotions and that they experience an emotional response of their own. In my personal experience, some cats are tremendously empathic.
Do cats have feelings for their owners?
Feline empathy and emotional support can be a powerful thing. I’ve known some very special individuals who could always tell when I was in a bad mood and would do everything they could to support me. Some of my cats would simply nuzzle up against me purring, while one in particular would fetch a toy so we could play together. It was clear that these cats were especially concerned about me and wanted me to be happy; they acted similarly to other members of the household but I seldom saw them do the same thing for visitors or guests. One of the cats we had in my childhood home would only come to comfort me and nobody else.
I could tell innumerable stories about feline attachment and empathy but a few sticks in my mind. A friend’s cat — a charming mixed-breed kitty with a lot of Siamese smarts — would detect sadness or anxiety in one family member and go to fetch someone to help. He would do this by meowing loudly until you stood up, then running backward and forwards until you walked in the direction he wanted you to go. One night when I was visiting and he deemed that I had been working too late, the same cat came and shooed me up to bed.
It wasn’t only humans who he had empathy for, either. His sister was a shyer and less communicative character, and the friendly little Tom helped her by acting as her interpreter. She was one of those cats who can’t get along with a water dish and needs a stream of running water to drink comfortably. She would therefore perch next to the wash-basin in the bathroom and her brother would fetch a human to turn on the tap for her.
Do cats have emotional attachment?
Beyond these displays of compassion, cats show their attachment to their owners in different ways. When I’ve looked after cats for friends who were on holiday or away for work, I often see cats becoming quite annoyed when I fail to produce their favourite human. One longhair girl who I sit regularly prowls the entire flat, searching under beds and in cupboards in case I’ve hidden her person somewhere. When I would come back from the shops she would peer out into the hall, and then meow angrily when her owner wasn’t with me. (When said owner finally returns, the cat — who has essentially been camping on the doormat all day and generally pining — gave my friend the cold shoulder and refused to interact for a day and a half).
I have definitely seen cats grieve for humans and for other pets. I once owned a very well-behaved tabby girl and a rather more adventurous tom. The two were fast friends until the boy cat somehow got out one night. He never returned. The next day his adoptive sister, who was not destructive and never played up in any way, scratched the spines of every book on the lower shelves. Somehow she knew he was gone and was terribly distressed. In another case, I looked after a cat whose owner had passed on. She cried incessantly and could not be induced to eat for a couple of days. She was taken in by the owner’s adult son and his family. She went on to make a full recovery but it was touch and go for a while, with the cat refusing food almost completely and needing a course of anxiety medication until she got used to her new home and family. The attachment was so strong that losing her special person nearly killed her.
About nine times out of ten when I hear an owner complaining about their “mean” kitty, the problem isn’t a vicious cat but an inter-species communication breakdown. Cats communicate their feelings rather differently to humans or other animals.
Cat emotions and body language
A calm, happy cat will appear relaxed. Her ears will be in a neutral position, her fur will lie flat and her tail will be at rest or moving slowly and lazily. She may stretch and yawn or curl up contentedly for a nap. Her eyes may be closed; this is a sign of trust and confidence. If a cat makes eye contact with you and slowly blinks both eyes, she’s telling you that you’re loved and trusted. A cat who feels secure and contented may snuggle up to you or jump into your lap for pets.
A confident and inquisitive cat will walk around a space with her tail perked up like an antenna. She will sniff and investigate objects and people and may express affection by rubbing around your legs.
A playful cat may roll around on her back. She might try to initiate a game by fetching a toy, or by pouncing on your hands or feet. (If your cat does this, substitute a proper toy for your hand. While I don’t mind cats playing with my shoelaces, I prefer not to have my hands torn to shreds by an over-enthusiastic playmate.)
Be alert to flat ears, wide eyes, an arched back, bristling fur and a lashing tail. These are all signs that your cat is getting scared or angry. If you see any of these, back off and allow the situation to de-escalate. The tail is a very clear index of your cat’s arousal level: if it’s lashing, stop what you’re doing and give her space.
Do cats have thoughts?
I always wonder what goes through my cats’ furry little heads. While their minds may not work like ours do, I have no doubt that cognition is occurring. That cats can learn, I have no doubt — they can be litter-trained and taught all sort of other useful skills and fun tricks. They also seem to have the ability to plan, along with some theory of mind; for example, your cat may deduce which cupboard you hide the treats in, and then wait till you’re out of eye-shot before attempting to open the door.
Of course, it’s impossible to know exactly what is going through a cat’s mind. They may not have thoughts in precisely the same way we do. Our thinking requires some form of complex language, which cats do not possess. Of course, cats can and do communicate; their “language” is simple, however, consisting of expressions, actions and gestures. It can actually be quite risky to overestimate a cat’s ability to devise and carry out plans. Much of what people take as structured and sometimes malicious activity is not any such thing. The classic example is the cat who “punishes” her owner by scratching the furniture or fittings. In fact, this is simply the cat engaging in a physically necessary activity (cats need to scratch for claw and muscle health) or marking territory due to some sense of insecurity. Punishing the behavior merely confuses the animal. Cats do think, in a way, but they’re unlikely to engage in sophisticated schemes.
Can cats sense danger?
Some cats seem to have a very strong instinct for impending trouble, which some people describe as a “sixth sense”. While I can’t comment on claims of supernatural abilities in felines, I can attest to the fact that they’re very sensitive to certain kinds of threat. Because a cat’s hearing, scent and kinesthetic senses are so acute, they can often pick up on some disasters before they occur. In earthquake-prone parts of the world, it’s sometimes the family cat who provides the initial warning. I’ve had cats who seemed to detect incoming storms before the met office put out a warning. Cats can certainly detect issues such as gas leaks before humans do.
Health is another area where cats excel in risk assessment. They seem to pick up on very slight changes in their humans’ condition, alerting and showing concern when something isn’t right. I have a friend with diabetes whose cat has been crucial in catching episodes of high or low blood sugar before they turned dangerous, fussing and crying until her owner took appropriate action. Cats can also learn to pick up on conditions such as asthma or epilepsy, anticipating attacks and raising the alarm.
I’ve also known one or two cats who were very astute at recognizing unsavory people. A couple of my acquaintances have broken off promising romantic entanglements because their cat objected to the new partner. In one case, the woman turned out to have a history of fleecing her paramours; in the other, the charming new boyfriend went on to be arrested for assaulting a date. The cats just knew somehow and made their displeasure known.