The question whether cats feel emotion has become a much debated topic among feline behaviorists and scientists. Views of whether and how animals experience emotion have changed over the past few decades, and most cat guardians don’t need a scientific study to tell them that their cats feel emotions: all they need to do is look into their feline companion’s eyes to know beyond the shadow of a doubt that they do. Since cats express emotions in different ways than humans, being able to read and interpret feline emotion is a key to understanding cats better, and to preventing and correcting behavior problems.
Science looks at feline emotion
The topic of emotions in animals is controversial in science because emotions are hard to quantify. However, recent studies have shown that the feline brain works very similar to the human brain. This supports the notion that even just based on physiology, it is reasonable to assume that cats feel emotions.
As early as in the 19th century, Charles Darwin found that there is an emotional and cognitive continuity between humans and animals. More recent research has determined that cats feel basic emotions such as love, fear, sadness, and happiness in much the same way as humans do. However, it may be impossible to examine emotion from a purely scientific viewpoint, and some researchers acknowledge that we may need to anthropomorphize (attribute human traits) to some extent when discussing animal emotions.
How cats communicate emotion
Cats utilize body language as a primary way to communicate. Some of these communications are obvious, others are more subtle. A cat’s eyes, ears, tail and even her fur all offer cues to her emotional state.
Cats respond to soft voices and petting, and may even return the petting by rubbing their head against your hand, or rolling over on their side. These mutual displays of affection support the notion that cats show emotion. Cats also form close relationships with other cats, as any cat guardian who has watched his cats lovingly groom each other can attest to.
Cats also show negative emotions such as apprehension, fear and anger. These, too, are expressed most often through body language: you cat’s ears may move back against his head, his eyes may narrow, or his fur may become puffed up (also known as piloerection.)
Cats are extremely sensitive to human emotions. They seem to intuitively know when their humans need affection, but they will also pick up on their guardian’s stress or anger. Studies have shown that human stress can actually make cats sick.
Grief is another widely debated issue when it comes to cats and emotions. Do cats grieve after losing a companion? While we have no way of knowing for sure how cats perceive death, anecdotal evidence abounds that cats do indeed mourn their lost companions, both feline and human. It seems reasonable to assume that if something would sadden humans, it would also affect cats in a similar manner. The ASPCA’s Companion Animal Mourning Project (1996) showed that a significant number of cats lost their appetite, became more affectionate or “clingy” with their guardians, or changed long-standing habits such as where they slept after losing a companion.
Cat guardians need to be aware of and in tune with their cats’ emotions. Not only will this increase understanding between the species, it will strengthen the bond between cat and human, and ensure a stress-free and happy life for both.