Do Cats Feel Love? With Insights from Dr. Marc Bekoff | Catzio

Do Cats Feel Love? With Insights from Dr. Marc Bekoff

Jump to:

  1. Can Cats Experience Love? 
  2. Do Animals Feel Emotions?
  3. Is Discussing Animal Emotions Equivalent to "Anthropomorphizing?"
  4. Recognizing Non-humans' Emotions: Why It Matters
  5. Do Cats Care About Your Feelings?
  6. Conclusion

Many cat owners are certain that the love between themselves and their animals is mutual. But scientists aren’t so sure.  You may never know for sure, but it’s interesting to dive deeper into the “what if” of your cat’s experience of love. 

Do cats feel love? Scientists aren’t sure if cats love their owners, or if cats display affection and other emotions at all. Some philosophers, like René Descartes, see animals as unfeeling “machines,” existing only to survive and reproduce. On the other hand, scientists like Charles Darwin recognize many parallels between humans and animals, one of them being the experience of love. 

Either way, cats likely feel love. But until humans can agree on what exactly “love” is and what it means to experience it, we will never know for sure. In the meantime, here are some key points to consider about your cat’s love for you. 

 

A kitten meows, cradled snugly in someone’s hands.

Can Cats Experience 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 cat owner, your response might be, “Well, duh! My cat shows affection all the time!” 

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, the evidence increasingly supports you. At least in the sense that your cat can have meaningful emotional experiences. Even renowned biologist, Marc Bekoff, noted in a recent interview, “There’s just a long, long history of rejecting anecdotes as just so-stories. But… the data show clearly that what was once an ‘anecdote’ has been proven.” 

Emotional recognition is critical to any interaction, whether human-to-human or between humans, dogs, cats, and other animals. 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. 

How Love Works 

It’s easy to say that cats feel love, especially when you analyze the sensation physiologically. Love is marked by the release of hormones that make dramatic changes to the body, such as oxytocin, dopamine, and vasopressin. Your cat undoubtedly experiences love on this level. 

But the matter of whether your cat loves you as a close companion is a bit more ambiguous. This is partially because 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. 

Further, until the last two decades, the idea of non-humans feeling love was quite contentious. Although many still oppose the idea, the denial of non-humans’ capacity for emotion is not as prevalent as it once was. Bekoff, welcomes the paradigm shift. 

 

“I think a lot of that… comes from human superiority, human exceptionalism, or the thought that we're… above and separate from other animals. But that's… pretty much evaporated. Because a much more truthful picture is: We're all in this together. [L]et's honor the fact that these are sentient beings.” 

Dr. Marc Bekoff, Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado

 

Many people who have spent ample one-on-one time with animals believe they instinctively know that domestic animals have dynamic inner lives. This group might say that non-humans indeed have emotional awareness like we do, perhaps with the same intensity and complexity. 

Yet, the idea is yet to be proven. Still, because emotions are intangible, hardly measurable, and highly subjective, perhaps this will never be “proven,” per se. 

But this isn’t grounds to say that they feel nothing at all. As Bekoff so eloquently stated in his publication on animal emotions, published in 2000, “Categorically denying emotions to animals because they cannot be studied directly does not constitute a reasonable argument against their existence.” 

 

A cat gazes off into the distance while laying on a soft surface.

 

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 in Animals are Machines

 

This stance has declined in popularity, thanks to advancing knowledge on animal cognition. However, many people still believe that non-humans lack a deep inner emotional experience. But contrary evidence exists supporting cats and other animals’ ability to experience a vast range of emotions, including:

 

  • Fear
  • Joy
  • Embarrassment 
  • Resentment
  • Jealousy
  • Love
  • Compassion
  • Grief

 

Charles Darwin expressed his speculations about animals’ emotional lives in several of his books. Darwin drew parallels between humans and non-humans, saying that many organisms differed only incrementally, not categorically. Further, he believed that people and animals feel similar emotions, including pleasure, pain, happiness, and sadness. 

One of the hardest parts of choosing a side in this debate is deciding what  “emotion” means. Is it metaphysical? 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 disagree. 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 challenging to answer. 

Despite this, strong evidence exists that may point to cats’ ability to show and experience affection, along with many other feelings. 

Fear and Animals’ Range of Emotions

Scientists are still learning more about cats’ cognition, behavioral responses to other cats and their environment, and interactions with their owners. Such information allows humans to understand how cats might feel about people, especially those in their families. 

For one, it’s abundantly clear that animals experience fear, an emotion shared by many species. Fear, quite literally, keeps organisms alive. Because of its significance to survival, and thus, species’ continued existence, fear is recognized as one of the natural, “basic emotions,” also known as “primary emotions.” 

Many experts once saw a clear divide between primary emotions and their more complex counterparts, called “secondary emotions.” To Bekoff, the line isn’t quite as clear. 

“[T]here's simple primary emotions… maybe fear would be one… or stress, anger. [A] lot of people think those are really hardwired into us. [T]here's certain stimuli that I could show you, you could show me, or you could show a dog or a cat, and they'd respond in the same way. The secondary emotions might be… guilt and jealousy and embarrassment, and the more ‘complex emotions.’ For me, that divide is very, very porous.” 

To Bekoff’s point: Not only is the separation between primary and secondary emotions blurred but so is that between human and other animals’ feelings. 

The Primary and Secondary Emotions 

Primary emotions are commonly believed to be “hard-wired” into humans’ and other animals’ minds and bodies, and to be central to their life experiences. Besides fear, other emotions with similar significance and universality include: 

  • Anger
  • Happiness
  • Sadness 
  • Disgust
  • Surprise

You might be able to identify each of these emotions based on your cat’s behavior. For example, anger might be characterized by aggressiveness. If you notice that one of your cats is bullying the other, you might be inclined to say that it is “mad” or “upset.” 

Similarly, your cat likely experiences the same emotions as you when you hold it and spend time together. Gentle expressions in its interactions with you, such as purring and snuggling, suggest that it certainly feels some type of affection. 

 

Some cats love to express affection toward other cats with which they share secure attachments, such as these two embracing one another.

 

Is Discussing Animal Emotions Equivalent to “Anthropomorphizing?” 

One of the most common arguments against the recognition of non-humans’ emotions is that, by acknowledging a cat or dog’s expression as “happy” or “sad,” you’re guilty of anthropomorphism. In a nutshell, to “anthropomorphize” something—living or not—means that you’re projecting human attributes onto it. 

Experts were once resistant to the use of anthropomorphic language in observations of other animals’ emotions. But Bekoff and many others, such as professor and ethology researcher Gordon M. Burghardt, and philosopher  and animal scientist Bernard E. Rollin, suggest that it may be beneficial. Decades ago, Bekoff wrote the following passage. 

The way human beings describe and explain the behavior of other animals is limited by the language they use to talk about things in general. By engaging in anthropomorphism—using human terms to explain animals’ emotions or feelings—humans make other animals’ worlds accessible to themselves. But this is not to say that other animals are happy or sad in the same ways in which humans (or even [members of the same species]) are happy or sad…. Using anthropomorphic language does not have to discount the animal’s point of view. Anthropomorphism allows other animals’ behavior and emotions to be accessible to us. Thus, I maintain that we can be biocentrically anthropomorphic and do rigorous science.

Bekoff explains that pet owners’ observations of their animal companions’ daily behaviors—the undervalued “anecdotes—” can be cross-referenced with hard data and natural history. Together, scientists can develop vivid insights into other animals’ inner lives.

Recognizing Non-Humans’ Emotions: Why it Matters

What is the value of acknowledging cats’ and other animals’ emotions? Well, for one, it can help you be a better pet owner. Plus, Bekoff suggests that acknowledging other animals’ emotional realities helps us to honor and interact with them appropriately. 

It can also pave the way for pet owners and scientists alike to understand other animals for who they are, rather than as human companions, exclusively. Such a shift in human perceptions could improve domestic animal enrichment and inform pet training methods. 

Bekoff says this could inform the “ecological relevance” of animal behavior studies, in particular, leading to changes in our general knowledge about living with our four-legged companions. “You can train a dog to do a whole lot of different things… but they may not be relevant to who a dog is,” he says. “[I]t’s interesting to know whether dogs can learn certain tasks, but for the dogs themselves, it doesn’t mean anything.” 

Getting to know who your cat is and what it feels can help strengthen your bond and ensure you provide fulfilling enrichment for life indoors. It may even reduce the likelihood of your cat winding up in a shelter. 

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, “pet problems,” which include issues with problematic or aggressive behavior, are among the most common reasons why cats are surrendered. By adapting your training methods to your cat’s personality and emotional tendencies, you secure its place in its Forever Home. 

Do Cats Care About Your Feelings? 

Regardless of your perspectives on love, it is evolutionarily beneficial to be aware and somewhat considerate of others’ feelings around you. Normally, this would benefit animals living in social pairs, groups, or communities since it helps humans and animals navigate social situations. 

Although cats are solitary, sharing a household with humans means adapting to understand and respond to human feelings and behavior. This phenomenon is generally known 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. For instance,  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 this was happenstance or the cat genuinely picked up on, and cared about, the humans’ emotional state. 

Still, additional research suggests that cats somewhat care about their owners’ wellbeing. For example, cats were found to reciprocate interactions with people suffering from depression. This means that if you display symptoms of “depressiveness,” your cat may be more likely to reciprocate such behaviors as cuddling and touching. 

Conclusion

Research is sparse on whether cats feel love or not. Yet, research continues to reveal 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 be vulnerable around you clearly signals 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.

Leave a comment

* Required fields

Please note: comments must be approved before they are published.