Cat Emotions

Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Update: This page was written years ago. It has value but things have moved on a bit since then. Please use the search custom search facility to find other articles on cat emotions.

[weaver_search width=300]

Discussing cat emotions is very difficult because we simply do not know for sure what emotions cats feel. When I say for sure, I mean there are no scientific studies that have concluded that a cat has specific emotions beyond fear, depression and contentment – basic emotions. The Wikipedia authors’ rambling article more of less says, “we don’t know”. However the basic conclusion is that cats need emotions for survival and that “Emotions arise in the mammalian brain, or the limbic system, which human beings share in common with other mammals as well as many other species”. I think this is almost common sense. Cats need emotions to survive, to feel anger and contentment. The big issue is whether they can feel the more complex emotions.

When You Believe Your Cat Has Emotions You Are More Attached to Her
Picture in public domain

Do cats have higher emotions such as holding a grudge? Do cats seek revenge? The problem is that we don’t speak the same language as cats. And if we did would a cat be able to express himself on the subject of his emotions? Are cats able to understand their own emotions? Are we being more sensible if we simply observe behaviour and steer clear of emotion? Lots of questions and no really good answers. I wonder if one of two visitors to this page will have any ideas based on observation?

I have failed to find any scholarly works about the emotions of cats, unsurprisingly! As there is very little in the way of science on the subject of cat emotions, we have the opportunity to think freely about this subject based on personal observation.

In previous articles the conclusion drawn is that cats feel emotions at a higher level. In this post: Cat Grief the conclusion is that it is a genuine feline emotion. It is sometimes apparent on the loss of a companion cat. Elisa, a regular and respected contributor to PoC, says that she believes cats can love each other. I have read enough stories to agree with this. Of course the word “love” is much used and much abused by people. Some of the relationships between cats and other species particular dogs indicate that a very close bond can be formed that could be described as love.

Cats feel anxiety. The documented example is separation anxiety but their general behaviour under certain circumstances reflects anxiety. One condition, Feline Hyperesthesia is the result of anxiety and stress, it is thought. Cats show signs of uncertainty when they show displacement behaviour such as licking their nose. In a study by Dr Paul Morris at the University of Portsmouth, England the emotion of jealousy was implied in the behaviour of dogs but others say that dogs respond to the behavioral changes in their owners rather than feel guilt.

Without being too subjective and unscientific, it appears that my cats show signs of jealousy occasionally or am I misinterpreting behaviour? This story indicates otherwise. Are we putting our emotions into the head of our cat?

At July 2018 I concluded that cats cannot feel guilt and pride because both need that cats measure their behavior against norms of society. That means the cat has to have created society norms and standards and be self-aware. Science does not support this. ME King made the point that jealousy might be simple ‘resource guarding’. An act to benefit survival. Can we reduce cat emotions to logical survival behaviors?

Also grief maybe mistaken for anxiety.

The idea of writing an article on cat emotions came about because a blog concluded that cats don’t hold grudges and seek revenge. Is desire for revenge an emotion – not sure? But if it is my instinctive gut feeling is that this is a correct conclusion. But it is complicated by the thought that “revenge” and “grudges” are human concepts it seems to me. We should be asking whether cats behave in the same way as humans under circumstances in which humans hold a grudge and seek revenge. That is much more measurable and it cuts out the human concepts.

Another emotion that might be termed a higher emotion is regret (a feeling of sorrow or remorse for a fault, act, loss, disappointment, etc.1). This requires a lot of mental functions. We usually regret something that we failed to do. This is the classic context under which the word is used. This requires a desire to do something that occurred in the past, a failure to do it and a regret that it was not done in the future based on long term memory. We don’t know if cats feel the emotion of regret. My thoughts are that they don’t. If I am correct it sets the limits on cat emotions.

There is no doubt that cat emotions exist (disagree? Please leave a comment). But they are not as extensive as ours. They are certainly centred around survival and for a domestic cat that is very closely linked to companionship; human companionship primarily and the companionship of other animals in the family. For this reason the higher cat emotions such as jealousy are more likely to evolve and be learned.

We should understand cat emotions better. The domestic cat is considered part of the family. A good partner in a family will be sensitive to the feelings and emotions of another. Unless we understand cat emotions how can we be sensitive to them?



Michael Avatar

Cat Emotions to Cat Behavior

Comments for
Cat Emotions

Click here to add your own comments

Feb 26, 2011and pain..
by: Anna

Yes, Ruth, definitely happiness and sadness, compassion, attachment and (how could I forget?!) distress, sorrow and pain. Just one look at that link you gave me with the picture of the poor kitten suffering the night after declawing, alone in a small cage on the bloody blanket..
I cried a river just looking at his face…just his face alone leaves no doubt about his feelings…
How dared those heartless people??
THEY are the ones with no feelings.

Feb 26, 2011My thoughts
by: Ruth

Thank you for another very well thought out and thought provoking article Michael.
Anna I’d say Lyova is definately emphathising with you when he holds and squeezes your hand.
Our cats have brought me through bereavements with all the shock and grief of them and through depression too by being close and showing how much they love me.
I don’t think cats feel the need for revenge but I know they do feel jealousy.
They don’t feel hatred but they do feel disrespect for anyone who doesn’t respect them or doesn’t treat them kindly.
I’ve seen many a cat turn and walk away from someone they don’t like, they don’t need words to say ‘You are beneath my notice’
Cats don’t actually bear a grudge, but they never forget !
If their first trip to the vets as a kitten is very traumatic, they are afraid of vets for life.
I should think a cat having been left to be declawed will feel pure terror at returning to that clinic, for ever after.
It’s easy to know they feel happiness, sadness, depression, love, pain, anxiety and fear.
But for all we think we know so much about cats I think we don’t really know the half of what they know about us.

Kattaddorra signature Ruth


Feb 25, 2011Empathy for sure!
by: Anna

This is a very interesting, controversial in definitions and hardly scientifically explored topic, Michael.

All living things are characterized by a controlled response to the stimuli from the internal and external environment. Even a tiny Cnidarian Hydra with just a radial network of nerves responds to a needle poke.

As animals become more complex, the nervous and endocrine systems becoming more sophisticated and interacting, they adapt to process and delay their responses and communicate it to other group members. I would say “feelings” evolve with the animal and are in correlation with its anatomy, especially of the brain, and the need to survive as a group.

Many Primates can change their facial expression to convey numerous emotions and are even shown to posses self awareness(in the famous experiments with mirrors). Most researchers agree that Great Apes are very close to humans in their feelings, though they have a much less developed cerebral cortex. At the same time psychopathic humans are missing empathy, one of the most important feelings possessed by, say, chimps.

Now what about cats? You have a video on this site showing cat anatomy. I noticed more similarities there with a human anatomy as compared even to the fetal pig, which almost every bio major has to dissect in college. Even in the areas you would expect to find more differences, like in digestive system, surprisingly cats have ascending, transverse and descending colon similar to humans, and not a spiral one, typical in pigs.

Similar major parts of the brain, similar need to communicate with their group members, especially with us, humans, after thousands of years of artificial selection during domestication. We were selecting the most affectionate and talkative for such a long time! And it really is a matter of just a few mutations which would lead to production of the desired brain proteins, some of which have already have probably occurred.

I agree that cats can not experience a remorse for their actions (yet ;-), that does require a human cortex, but I think there is no doubt they feel jealousy, anger, attachment (not to say love) and empathy to a very detectable degree. I wish there was an option here to add a picture to my comment of my cat Lyova holding and gently squeezing my hand in response to my sobbing on the couch.

3 thoughts on “Cat Emotions”

  1. Of course cats feel emotions, but they are cat emotions and not human emotions. The problem with anthropomorphizing animals is that their senses, for example, are very different from us so there’s lots of things that we are missing. They feel our pheromones smell, they have accurate hearing, sensitive whiskers and a whole smell organ inside their mouths that we can’t relate to. So the rules of cat emotions aren’t the same as for us.

    They retain lots of behaviors from their first interactions with their moms that clue us on the signs that they are content/happy: they knead, they cuddle, they purr, they display their bellies up.

    They demonstrate empathy: a cat is distressed by many kinds of baby animals crying and try to sooth the baby, lick their tears and provide some comfort. They perceive when their human is crying or sad and will tap on them with their paws, lick their tears, bump their heads etc.

    They demonstrate “jealousy” in a kind of competition sense: the other (cat, dog, new human in the household) is getting something that is mine and I will take it for me.

    They are curious and able to learn. I believe that “grudge” is more likely a marker of “this person is bad/not good for me/avoid” (smells off, hurt them, looks like someone they already dislike or is invading territory).

    I never saw planned revenge, but I observed “quid pro quo” behavior: you did something they dislike, they do something that you will dislike (like pooping in your shoe)

    Likewise, I see less “guilt” than “caught doing a behavior that I know is punished”. And they totally demonstrate that with that “oops” look.

    Grief and depression thanks to abandonment or death of a caretaker can kill a cat. I don’t think it’s the same as being sad.

    “Love” is attachment and they demonstrate that they love us all the time in very sincere ways.

    I really wish more research was made with better designed measurements, most of the experiments totally disrupt natural habitat and behavior and then give false results 🙁

    • Thanks for a great comment Lanika. I too wish more research was carried out on cat emotions. I recently wrote some more articles on this subject. It is a tricky subject because we can’t get into the head of animals and therefore we assess by observation of behavior. I think many cat owners do anthropomorphise cats and some project their feelings onto their cat. I concluded that cats don’t feel guilt and pride.


Leave a Comment

follow it link and logo