Every cat owner knows the feeling of rejection all too well. You may have petted your hand to stroke your cat’s head or scratch its soft underbelly. But your cat rejects your love and prances off to sit on a laptop or follow someone else into the bathroom.
How do you know if your cat actually loves you? Do cats even feel love the way we imagine?
The bond between cats and humans is nebulous and difficult to decipher – but not impossible. Inverse interviewed three feline experts about portraying affections between cat and owner to help them better understand your fluffy friend.
How Do You Know If Your Cat Loves You?
What is love? It’s the beginning of a 1993 catchy tune, yes, but it’s also a fundamental issue of relationships – including that between animals and humans.
All three experts interviewed by Inverse agree that “love” is a difficult concept to define, especially when it comes to an entirely different species.
“Love is a very complex concept that is not easy to quantify – even in humans,” Kristyn Vitale told Inverse. Vitale is a Cat Researcher and Assistant Professor of Animal Health and Behavior at Unity Collge.
Valarie V. Tynes, Veterinary Specialist at Ceva Animal Health, agrees. Love is a very challenging term, Tynes tells Inverse – especially when it comes to animals who can’t tell you how they’re feeling.
Do we love cats? Inverse explored. Getty
However, animals and humans share a wide range of emotions. The way a cat expresses love may not be that different from that of a human.
“What we do know is that other species, besides humans, share many, if not all, of the same emotions that we have,” Katherine Pankratz, a board certified veterinarian at the Animal Behavior Clinic, told Inverse.
How do cats show love?
Before we can understand whether cats can love, we need to develop a basic understanding of what love for a cat might be like.
Pankratz and Tynes both describe certain “associative behaviors” that animals use to bond with other animals – and sometimes with humans.
Cats display certain “associative” or behavior patterns that indicate positive feelings towards another animal or even a human
Some common examples of feline associative behavior include:
- Head bunting or rubbing his head against another person
- Face or cheek rubbing
- Sleeping in close contact with another person
- Walking in parallel next to another person, often with their tail wrapped around them
- Mutual grooming, usually with another cat
Taken together, these gestures could signal a cat’s affection for an owner.
“We can conclude that they share associative behaviors, and [we] can interpret that as affection or possibly as your definition of love, ”says Pankratz
In addition to associative behavior, cats, like many other pets, can also form bonds with their owners.
“Our research examined one aspect of love, namely the formation of a bond. A bond is a comforting, loving relationship between two people, ”says Vitale. Cats form bond bonds with their owners, which leads to certain behavior patterns that add up to the “safe base effect,” she explains.
“With the safe basic effect, the cat uses its owner as a source of comfort and safety,” explains Vitale.
When the owner leaves, the cat becomes desperate and does not want to explore its surroundings. However, when the owner returns, the cat “greets its owner and feels safe to explore while regularly checking back in with its owner,” says Vitale.
Can cats give unconditional love?
Even if we believe our cats love us, is that affection still conditional – depending on us feeding them, providing for their basic needs, and taking care of them in general?
“Regarding conditional or unconditional love, I’ll say that one way or another there is minimal evidence to support this,” says Tynes.
But if one aspect of unconditional love is putting up with harsh treatment or bad habits from a loved one, cats are less likely to be capable of such love, Tynes explains. She compares cats with dogs that are more likely to show affection for an owner even after being punished.
Is a cat’s love dependent on expectations or unlimited? Getty
“On the other hand, I think cats are very sensitive to punishment from their owners, and punishment or harsh treatment seem to be more likely to damage the bond between humans and cats,” says Tynes.
Pankratz sees the question differently, however, suggesting that a cat’s ability to freely express love depends on the trust between owner and pet.
“When that trust is broken, there may not necessarily be more love, but the ability to express this behavior can differ or vary depending on the type of experience or influence,” says Pankratz.
How do cats know if you love them?
Can cats interpret our expressions of love in the same way as other people?
It’s hard to answer, but scientists have begun to tackle this mystery.
“So you can at least say cats show signs of attachment directed against their owner. “
For example, a 2016 study published in the journal Animal Cognition attempted to understand how well cats can differentiate between human emotions. The cats were presented with various facial expressions – including happiness and anger – as well as positive and negative conversations between their owner and an unknown researcher.
“Domestic cats were only moderately sensitive to emotions, especially when shown by their owner, suggesting that a history of human interaction alone may not be enough to form such skills in domestic cats,” the research team concludes.
If you think your cat can sense any emotional whim, this news may be daunting. But Tynes offers hope.
“There is some research into the attachment of cats to humans, and it shows that cats show many of the above signs in association with their owner, but not with a stranger,” says Tynes.
“So at least one can say that cats show signs of attachment directed against their owner and bond with their owner.”
Are Some Cats More Loving Than Others?
Individual cats, like humans, may very well have their own love languages.
“Just like you and I, we have different personalities,” says Pankratz. “Different things have influenced our lives. Neither of us likes to be more or less loving – we can just put it differently. “
A research video by Vitale et al. Show how cats display secure bonds or bonds with owners.
Whether or not your cat is emotionally expressive largely depends on its personality type.
“There is a lot of data on personality differences in cats that shows a variety of individual differences,” says Tynes.
She suspects that there may also be a genetic component: some cats may be less “inbred” and therefore have “greater genetic diversity”, which can lead to different emotional behaviors.
But Tynes argues we can’t generalize whether a cat will be more affectionate because of its breed.
“The difference will simply be between individuals,” she says. “Some cats are just more loving than others.”
Are dogs more loving than cats?
Dogs may seem more expressive when it comes to their feelings, but Panktratz justifies this only because they socialize in different ways than cats.
“Humans and dogs – we’re in a social group while cats have what is called a flexible group,” she says.
Cats have “adapted to a more flexible social structure,” says Pankratz. You can be social at times, but also very independent.
Vitale’s work, however, challenges the idea that dogs are the only animals that form unique bonds – so-called “secure bonds” with their owners. Their 2019 study suggests that 65 percent of cats are securely attached to their owner. These retention rates mirror those found in similar studies in infants and dogs.
There is less scientific literature on cat recognition and behavior compared to dogs, making it difficult to draw conclusions, says Tynes. There are still major differences between dogs and cats, largely due to the different ways people artificially breed dogs compared to cats, she says.
As a result, dog breeds have more dramatic and varied appearances and body types compared to domestic cats.
“All in all, cats stay just a little closer to their wild ancestors than dogs,” says Tynes.