As a pet owner, it’s natural to look at your pet now and then and wonder whether it feels as strongly for you as you do for it. You may never discover the true answer to this question, but it’s interesting to dive deeper into the “what if” of your cat’s experience of love.
Do cats feel love? Humans do not yet know if cats – or any other non-human animals, at that – feel love. Some philosophers, like René Descartes, see animals as unfeeling “machines,” existing only to survive and reproduce. Scientists like Charles Darwin recognize that there are many parallels between humans and animals, one of them being the experience of love.
It’s quite possible that cats feel love. Yet, until humans can agree on what exactly “love” is and what it means to experience it, we will never know for sure. Here are some key points to consider for those moments when you’re wondering if your cat’s heart is just as warm and fuzzy as yours.
Do Cats Feel Love?
A question that has kept philosophers, environmentalists, animal rights activists, and others fervently occupied in heated debate is whether animals can feel emotions or not. If you’re a pet owner, your response might be, “Well, duh! My pet loves me!”
The close relationship between you and your cat, forged over years of quality time and cohabitating makes it glaringly obvious to you. You can see every frustrated wrinkle on your cat’s face, every annoyed flick of the tail, and even hear the tonal pitches in its meow. Of course, your cat loves you, and you know it. Right?
Well, there is growing evidence that you might be right. Emotional recognition is a critical part of any interaction, whether you’re engaging with another human or not. This means that it’s important for your cat to at least be able to understand your emotional state for you to share a positive cohabitating experience.
One the one hand, it’s easy to say that cats feel love, especially when you analyze this sensation on a physiological level. Love is marked by the release of hormones that make dramatic changes to the body, such as oxytocin, dopamine, and vasopressin. Your cat surely experiences love on this level.
Unfortunately, if you’re wondering whether your cat loves you as a close companion or shares a unique attachment with you as its owner, the answer’s much more ambiguous. Cats are among the least-studied animals when it comes to even the physiological meaning of love. For example, only 3% of studies on oxytocin and wellbeing in domesticated species involved cats.
Many people who have spent ample one-on-one time with non-human animals feel that they instinctively know that domestic species, such as cats and dogs, have dynamic inner lives. This group might say that non-humans undoubtedly have emotional awareness like we do, perhaps on the same level of intensity and complexity.
These perspectives lead many to readily accept that a cat can feel and express love. Yet, the idea is still yet to be proven. Still, because emotions are intangible, hardly measurable, and highly subjective, perhaps this won’t ever be “proven,” per se.
Although this isn’t grounds to say that they feel nothing at all. As Mark Bekoff so eloquently stated, “Categorically denying emotions to animals because they cannot be studied directly does not constitute a reasonable argument against their existence.”
Do Animals Feel Emotions?
“[If] there had been such machines, possessing the organs and outward form of a monkey or some other animal without reason, we should not have had any means of ascertaining that they were not of the same nature as those animals.” Philosopher René Descartes wrote that in the publication, Animals are Machines.
This view isn’t as widespread anymore due to expanding knowledge on non-human cognition, yet many people still believe this of animals’ internal experience.
On the other hand, there is evidence that cats and other animals can experience a vast range of emotions, including:
In multiple books, Charles Darwin wrote about his own speculations regarding animals’ emotional lives. Darwin drew parallels between humans and non-humans, saying that many associated organisms differed only incrementally, not categorically. In that same vein, he also believed that people and animals feel a similar range of emotions, including pleasure, pain, happiness, and sadness.
One of the hardest parts of choosing a side on this debate is deciding what constitutes the term “emotion.” Is it a metaphysical feeling? Is it a combination of thought patterns and neurological responses to certain stimuli? Is it merely a series of electrical synapses and a hormone soup flowing through your body with no real rhyme or reason?
People tend to disagree on this. In fact, they disagree on the meaning of “love” arguably more often than the general emotional being. With that said, the varying ideologies surrounding societal and individual views on love and emotion make the question of whether cats feel love difficult to answer.
Despite this, strong evidence exists that may point to cats’ ability to show and experience affection, along with many other feelings.
The Range of Animals’ Emotions
Scientists continually gather a foundation of evidence concerning cats’ cognitive patterns, behavioral responses to other cats and their environment, and interactions with their owners. Such information allows humans to draw connections and inferences on how cats might feel about people, especially those in their family units.
For one, it is abundantly clear that animals can feel fear, a widely shared emotion across countless species. Fear, quite literally, keeps organisms alive. Because of its significance to individual survival, and thus, species’ continued existence, fear is recognized as one of the natural, “basic emotions.”
Such emotions are believed to be “hard-wired” into the mind and body for humans and other closely related animals, and experience universally. The other primary emotions include:
You might be able to identify each of these emotional experiences based on your cat’s behavior. For example, anger might be characterized by aggressive behavior. If you notice that one of your cat’s is bullying the other, you might be inclined to say that it is “mad” or “upset.”
In this same way, your cat likely feels love when you hold it and spend time with it. Gentle expressions in its interactions with you, such as purring and snuggling, suggest that it certainly feels some type of affection.
Do Cats Care About Your Feelings?
Whether you believe cats feel love specifically or not, it is evolutionarily advantageous to be aware and somewhat caring about others’ feelings around you. Normally, this would be more beneficial for animals that live in social pairs, groups, or communities. Although cats are solitary animals, sharing a household with humans means that they must adapt to understand and respond to human feelings and behavior.
This phenomenon is generally referred to as “empathy.” Animals exercising empathy must be somewhat sensitive to the non-verbal, non-physical dynamics around them to maintain safety and connection to conspecifics, or organisms of the same species.
Domestic cats are known to display this, showing “modest” sensitivity to their owners’ emotions. A 2015 study showed that your cat might approach you more often if it notices you’re feeling agitated or displaying extroverted behavior. However, the tendency to approach was the only significant behavior illustrated in the study, so it’s unclear whether the cat is truly concerned about the humans’ emotional state.
Still, additional research suggests that cats somewhat care about their owners’ wellbeing. Cats were found to reciprocate interactions with people suffering with depression. For instance, if you were displaying “depressiveness,” your cat may be more likely to reciprocate such behaviors as cuddling and touching.
Research is sparse on whether cats feel love or not. Yet, scientists push forward in revealing more about the animal psyche and what that might mean for emotional bonding between humans and our four-legged feline friends.
Even if those groundbreaking studies never emerge, know this: The bond between you and your cat is sacred. Nothing compares to sharing space and time with a being as precious as a cat. Its willingness to spend time with and being vulnerable around you is a clear signal that it trusts and values your companionship. Cherish it always, no matter what the science ultimately decides.
About the Author
My name is Jazmin "Sunny" Murphy, and I am a science communicator and web content writer. Since 2015, I've been producing scientific content that is written in plain English. My love for life science has influenced my professional and academic aspirations since I was a kid. I hold a Bachelor of Science in Zoology and 21 units of a Master's education in Environmental Policy & Management (concentration: Fish and Wildlife Management). You can learn more about me and my science writing and reporting work at my website, Black Flower Writing Services.