Every cat owner knows the feeling of rejection all too well. Perhaps you reached out to pet your feline’s head or scratch their soft underbelly. But your cat declines your love, prancing away to sit on a laptop or follow someone else into the bathroom.
How can you know if your cat actually loves you? Do cats even feel love in the way we imagine?
The cat-human bond is nebulous and tricky to decipher — but not impossible. Inverse interviwed three cat experts about the display of affections between cat and owner, helping you to better understand your fluffy friend.
How can you know if your cat loves you?
All three of the experts Inverse interviewed agree “love” is a hard concept to define, especially when it comes to an entirely different species.
“Love is a very complex concept that isn't easy to quantify —even in humans,” Kristyn Vitale tells Inverse. Vitale is cat researcher and assistant professor in animal health and behavior at Unity Collge.
Valarie V. Tynes, a veterinary services specialist at Ceva Animal Health, agrees. Love is a very challenging term to define, Tynes tells Inverse — especially when it comes to animals that cannot tell you how they feel.
However, animals and humans share a wide range of emotions. The way a cat expresses love might not be that different from a human.
“What we do know is that other species, beyond humans, share a lot of if not all of the same emotions that we have,” Katherine Pankratz, a board-certified veterinarian at the Animal Behavior Clinic, tells Inverse.
How do cats show love?
Before we can understand whether cats can love, we need to form a baseline understanding of what love might look like for a cat.
Pankratz and Tynes both describe certain “affiliative behaviors” animals use to form bonds with other animals — and sometimes humans, too.
Some common examples of feline affiliative behavior are:
- Head bunting or rubbing its head against another individual
- Facial rubbing or cheek rubbing
- Sleeping in close contact with another individual
- Parallel walking next to another individual, often with the tail wrapping around them
- Mutual grooming, usually with another cat
Taken together, these gestures could signal a cat’s affection for an owner.
“We can infer that they share affiliative behaviors, and [we] may interpret that as affection or potentially your definition of love,” Pankratz says
Beyond affiliative behavior, cats, like many pets, can also form attachment bonds with their owners.
“Our research examined one aspect of love, which is the formation of an attachment bond. An attachment bond is a comforting, affectional relationship between two individuals,” Vitale says. Cats form attachment bonds with their owners, leading to certain behavioral patterns which add up to the “secure base effect,” she explains.
“In the secure base effect, the cat uses their owner as a source of comfort and security,” Vitale explains.
When the owner leaves, the cat becomes distressed and does not want to explore its surroundings. However, when the owner returns, the cat “greets their owner and feels safe to explore out from them while periodically checking back in with their owner,” according to Vitale.
Can cats give unconditional love?
Even when we think our cats love us, is that affection still conditional — dependent on us feeding them, providing for their basic needs, and generally caring for them?
“Regarding conditional or unconditional love, I will say that there is minimal evidence one way or the other to support this,” Tynes says.
But if one aspect of unconditional love entails putting up with harsh treatment or a loved one’s bad habits, then cats are probably less likely to be capable of such love, explains Tynes. She compares cats to dogs, who may be more likely to display affection toward an owner, even after facing punishment.
“On the other hand, I believe cats are very sensitive to punishment from their owners, and punishment or harsh treatment seems to be more likely to damage the bond between the human and cat,” Tynes says.
Pankratz views the question differently, however, suggesting a cat’s ability to freely express love is dependent on trust between owner and pet.
“If that trust is broken, there may not necessarily be no more love, but the ability to express that behavior may different may differ or vary with those sorts of experiences or influences,” Pankratz says.
How can cats know if you love them?
Can cats interpret our expressions of love the same way other humans do?
It’s a hard question to answer, but scientists have begun tackling this conundrum.
“So you can at least say that cats show signs of attachment directed towards their owner.”
For example, a 2016 study published in the journal Animal Cognition attempted to understand how well cats can distinguish human emotions. The cats were presented with different facial expressions — including happiness and anger — as well as positive and negative conversations between their owner and an unfamiliar researcher.
“Domestic cats were only modestly sensitive to emotion, particularly when displayed by their owner, suggesting that a history of human interaction alone may not be sufficient to shape such abilities in domestic cats,” the research team concludes.
If you think your cat can sense your every emotional whim, this news might be disheartening. But Tynes offers some hope.
“There is some research on cat attachment to humans, and it does demonstrate that cats show many of the signs above in association with their owners but not with a stranger,” Tynes says.
“So you can at least say that cats show signs of attachment directed towards their owner and form attachment bonds 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've got different personalities,” Pankratz says. “Different things have influenced our lives. Neither of us may be more or less loving — we just may express it differently.”
Essentially, whether your cat is or is not emotionally expressive may come down to their personality type.
“There is a lot of data regarding feline personality differences that demonstrate a wide variety of individual differences,” Tynes says.
She hypothesizes there may also be a genetic component: Some cats may be less “inbred” and therefore possess “wider genetic diversity,” which can lead to different emotional behaviors.
But Tynes argues we can’t generalize whether a cat will be more loving based on breed.
“The difference is going to simply be among individuals,” she says. “Some cats are just more affectionate than others.”
Are dogs more loving than cats?
Dogs might seem more expressive when it comes to their emotions, but Panktratz reasons that’s just because they socialize in different ways than cats.
“Humans and dogs — we're in a social group, whereas cats, they have what's called a flexible group,” she says.
Cats have “adapted to having a social structure which is more flexible,” Pankratz says. They can be social at times, but also fiercely independent.
Vitale’s work, however, challenges the idea that dogs are the only animals that form unique attachment bonds — known as “secure attachments” to their owners. Her 2019 study suggests 65 percent of the cats become securely attached to their owner. These rates of attachment mirror those found in similar studies on infants and dogs.
There’s less scientific literature on feline cognition and behavior compared to dogs, which makes it difficult to draw conclusions, Tynes says. There are still key differences between dogs and cats, primarily due to the different ways that humans artificially breed dogs compared to cats, she says.
As a result, dog breeds display more dramatic and divergent appearances and body types compared to domestic cats.
“All that said, cats just remain a bit closer to their wild ancestor than dogs do,” Tynes says.