Do cats have feelings and emotions?

If you’ve owned a cat for a while, you may start to notice your pet’s different moods – but are these actually emotions or are they just responses to direct stimuli? The answer to the question has long been debated among behaviorists and scientists for house cats and many other animals. Although it’s difficult to get direct proof, there are some intriguing theories to support the notion that your furry friend may have real, human-like feelings.


Like humans, one cat can act much differently than another. For example, one feline may be extremely vocal and forward about positive or negative feelings while another will not make much of an indication either way. Most cat owners will begin to notice the signs of their cat’s moods as well as what causes them. For instance, one cat might be angry when you go out for long periods of time and let you know by yowling and scratching when you return, while another will act as if nothing has happened.

Some cats appear to feel more complex emotions like spite by taking direct efforts to soil your personal items, though this is often a sign of a cat marking territory rather than showing anger. In these cases, it’s best not to assume that your cat was seeking revenge, but rather following an instinct that can be corrected with training.

An article from Purina details that when cats show emotion, it’s often at one of the extremes of the emotional scale. This may be because cats have relatively simple emotional systems, as opposed to ours, which are complicated by our rationalization of responses. For the most part, felines are driven by the desire to find food, play, guard territory, flee from potentially threatening situations (like a vacuum cleaner) and the draw to social attachment. This last system may even be what bonds cats to their pet parents.

While it’s true that our furry companions likely don’t feel emotions on the same spectrum as we do, it’s worth noting that there are definitely emotional responses present in felines. Cats feel some of the same basic emotions, like fear and happiness, that we do.

Responding to cat’s feelings
A panel of experts gathered by Cat Channel agreed that cats feel some sort of emotion, though they didn’t all agree on what level. All six experts agreed that cats’ behavior is definitely influenced by some measure of feeling, and one was convinced that cats feel a wide spectrum of emotions that pet parents often fail to notice. The expert cautioned that cat parents should be very aware of their pet’s feelings and try to respond accordingly. Unlike people, cats won’t spare an emotional reaction due to social obligations: Instead, a cat will act as directed by emotions.

Cat’s calming nature
Many people feel so positively affected by the bond they experience with cats that the furry companions are used in therapy. These cats assist those who are suffering physically, mentally or emotionally, notes Catster, and are used in many settings ranging from children’s hospitals to nursing homes. These kitties are specially trained to be very relaxed and respond well to being touched and handled by people who may benefit from the affection of a furry friend.

Understanding the emotion of a pet is very important, whether you want to adopt a cat or are considering puppy adoption. Either way, be sure to spend some time with a cat at a local animal shelter like Bideawee to make sure you and your potential pet are on the same wavelength. Even if you don’t understand each other completely, you can still have a rewarding relationship.

(by Sarah Hartwell)

“Emotion” is the term we use for feelings, some of which are instinctive and some of which are learned from those around us as we conform to society’s expectations and norms. Human emotions range from “primitive” feelings such as disgust, rage, fear and lust to “complex” emotions compassion and jealousy.

Recent studies, especially in fields such as neuropsychology, show that the more “primitive” or basic emotions have a physiological basis and may be caused by chemical stimuli (such as sexual attractant scents called pheromones) or visual stimuli. Basic emotions appear to cause chemical changes in the body in response to a stimulus.

This article looks at feline feelings. In places it compares or contrasts human and feline responses or makes references to other animals for illustrative purposes.


Do cats (and other higher animals) have feelings? Can they respond emotionally?

According to many pet owners, the answer is “yes”. Cats display a range of feelings including pleasure, frustration and affection. Other feline behaviour is attributed to jealousy, frustration and even vengefulness. Owners base their answer on observation of feline behaviour, but without an understanding of what makes a cat tick, they risk crediting a cat with emotions it does not feel as well as recognising genuine feline emotions. Owners who veer too far into the “Did my ickle-wickle fluffy-wuffikins miss his mummy then?” approach may not understand (or not want to accept) that a cat’s emotions evolved to suit very different situations to our own.

Cats and humans are built much the same way and share many of the senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch – as well as having additional “senses” which are adaptations to our particular environments and lifestyles (e.g. the Flehmen taste-smell reaction in cats). Though humans have better vision, cats have better smell, taste and hearing. Like us, cats feel heat, cold, pain and other physical sensations. Physical stimuli may lead to physiological responses, some of which are termed emotions. If humans and cats have similar responses to, for example, the smell of enticing food, they may share certain emotions e.g. happiness at the prospect of a satisfying meal.

According to many scientists, however, the answer is “no”. They argue that humans like to anthropomorphise (attribute human qualities to non-human animals) and regard pets as surrogate children. We interpret their instinctive behaviours according to our own wide range of emotions. We credit them with feelings they do not have. Some scientists deny that animals, including cats and dogs, are anything more than flesh-and-blood “machines” programmed for survival and reproduction. Others, such as pet behaviourists, credit animals with some degree of emotional response and a limited range of emotions (limited in comparison to humans, that is).

Many researchers’ scepticism is fuelled by their professional aversion to anthropomorphism, but others have a more sinister motive. Those who deny animals any feelings at all may do so in order to justify animal experiments which others consider inhumane. This denial of animal emotions allows them to conduct experiments with little regard for their subjects’ physical or mental wellbeing. The denial of animal emotions is their own hidden agenda rather than a conclusion based on study of behaviour.

Some religions teach that man is superior to animals and, by extension, animals do not have feeling. Some cultures do not recognise animals as thinking, feeling entities, for example the Chinese term for animal equates to “moving thing” and animals in food markets are treated as though they are no more than unfeeling, moving, vocalising vegetables. Politicians and those opposed to “animal rights” believe that according animals emotions would accord them rights (possibly rights equal to humans), changing the whole human/animal relationship and making pet-keeping, farming, hunting and experimentation unacceptable (many people already argue that hunting and experimentation are unacceptable on grounds of unnecessary cruelty). They argue that humans would be reduced to animal status with all that entails: culling, enforced sterilisation, selective breeding etc and pretty soon the word “Nazi” gets bandied about (ironically Hitler banned hunting).

Are either of these polarised views correct or do cats also share certain emotions, perhaps a limited subset of the emotions we feel? To find out, we must observe our own and our cats’ responses to situations and analyse what an emotion is.


What is the role of emotion in an animal’s life? In the wild state, all behaviours and emotions improve the individual’s chances of surviving and breeding, and therefore improve the chances of the whole species surviving. What we term “love” could be unromantically considered a type of attachment that bonds a breeding pair together (sometimes for the duration of the mating act, sometimes for a longer period), and bonds one or both parents to the offspring until the offspring can survive alone. “Love” therefore improves the survival prospects of the individuals (who look out for each other) and the species.

Animals must adapt to a changing environment – the rate at which they need to adapt might be several lifetimes (in which case adaptation is through genetic variation) or a single lifetime (in which case learning and intelligence are essential). Evolutionary psychology is used to measure emotions that have changed over time and can be used to measure emotions that will help animals to survive in the future. Cats, like us, come into the world pre-equipped with a number of emotions that help them adapt and survive.

In humans, there are 6 basic responses i.e. emotions which are rooted in our physiology (there were initially believed to be just 3 basic responses – fear, sorrow, joy – but recent research in humans has expanded the number to 6). These “primary emotions” involve lower brain stimulation and do not require cognition. They are hard-wired survival mechanisms for a very good reason – if we had to spend time learning these, we might well be killed before perfecting them as skills. These basic responses, or primary emotions, cause an instinctive response in our brains and bodies, not just in our minds. For example, when an object flies towards our faces we duck, even though we haven’t identified the object.

These emotions are linked to particular brain areas in humans or to hormonal or chemical responses. They are survival responses to protect us from adverse conditions and to make us seek out favourable conditions. Most are linked to our perception of comfort and discomfort. It is likely that cats have equivalent physiological responses to the same, or similar, stimuli.

FEAR A self-preservation instinct. Fear leads to alertness, caution and possibly to flight. It prepares the body for flight or defence. Fear is the recognition of a potential danger rather than the instinctive (and possible energy wasting) flight from potential (rather than actual) danger. Fear allows the animal to assess how real or immediate the danger is and to take appropriate action (flight, freeze, hide, disregard etc).
DISGUST In the human context, originally this prevented us from eating contaminated food or coming into contact with filth. In modern humans it is also applied to other stimuli (the thought of doing something, an image or a situation). It is an avoidance mechanism. In cats, whose livers are not good at dealing with toxins, the avoidance of stale food is probably caused by a similar mechanism. Cats rely on smell, taste and “disgust” to avoid tainted food.
DESIRE (LUST) Associated with the basic mating urge without which we would not breed. Desire is associated with pheromones and body language; and causes chemical reactions in our own bodies when we experience it. It is associated with mate-seeking, assessment of a potential mate’s suitability and courtship behaviour rather than just with copulation.
SADNESS A form of psychological discomfort experienced in non-ideal situations; it helps us to avoid non-ideal conditions. Humans have a wide range of sadness-emotions varying from grief, transient upsets and some forms of depression (a chemical disturbance in the brain) have symptoms like sadness. Cats exhibit depression in some situations and some cats have been reported as “inconsolable” when a close companion dies. Separation anxiety in cats and dogs may be partly due to the sadness mechanism.
HAPPINESS A form of psychological comfort/satisfaction experience. It helps us seek ideal conditions or repeat beneficial behaviours (eating, sex); chemical reactions are involved – feelgood chemicals are released in the brain. In cats it is most often seen as “contentment” and is also evident in cats and kittens during play. Play is a self-fulfilling behaviour which produces “happiness” by release of feelgood chemicals.
ANGER A reaction to a non-ideal situation when we intend to fight; chemical reactions occur in the body as part of the fight or flight response. It can also result in displacement activities such as self-mutilation. Cats which are handled against their will exhibit obvious anger. Most vets are familiar with sheer feline fury though it is hard to distinguish “anger” from the “fight” reaction. “fight” is relatively transient; anger (a bad mood) does not pass so quickly (a cross cat will stay angry even when the stimulus is removed).


The feline sniff-and-sneer reaction is the Flehmen response to “taste-smell” something. A cat has an excellent sense of smell and can detect food which is stale or contains medication. Though the sneer looks like disgust (humans wrinkle their noses when disgusted), it is simply the way the cat’s mouth is set to pass scent molecules over the Jacobsen’s Organ. After flehming, the will take the appropriate response.

Cats show fear and lust in response to the appropriate sights, sounds and smells, but love requires a degree of abstraction which cats probably do not possess. Lust is the mating urge, love is the emotional baggage which surrounds and tempers that urge in most humans. Humans have a wider range of emotions and the emotions which we share with cats are more refined in the human species.

Physical and emotional pain have been studied in terms of an animal’s body language, vocalisation, temperament, depression, locomotion, immobility, and clinical changes in cardiovascular, respiratory, nervous, and muscular systems. Awareness of these factors allows vets to administer pain relief to their patients appropriately. Veterinary procedures are ranked as having minor, moderate or severe effects on animals.


Cats and other animals have feelings. However their feelings must be interpreted in the context of their own physical needs and their own environment. They have a more limited range of feelings than humans and their reaction to environmental stimuli is different to humans, but they show many responses indicative of emotions.

Although I have used the term “programmed”, to reduce cats to little more than pre-programmed machines with a finite set of available reactions would be wrong. Those who deny that cats, or other animals, are entirely lacking in feelings do this to justify their own treatment of animals rather than through any true understanding of those animals. Rather than attribute full human feelings to cats, it is better to understand how cats perceive the world and to adjust our behaviour to accommodate their physical and emotional needs as best we can.

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