Overview: domestic cats have gut feelings but at present we are unsure as to the level of sophistication of cat emotions and whether they differ from ours or how they differ from ours. This is a rather long rambling post so you might like to skim it.
We know that cats hide their emotions from each other. This is a legacy of their evolutionary history. They are essentially solitary animals although many are adapted to sociable living.
Scientists and cat owners believe that the domestic cat possesses at least a basic range of emotions, what we call gut feelings which are shared with other mammals. They need these emotions in order to be able to make quick decisions for survival such as to run away when frightened.
Basic emotions such as anxiety (discussed below), joy, fear, affection and anger are what we might refer to as gut feelings. They happen spontaneously. These emotions are produced by the most primitive part of the cat’s brain; the part that involve hundreds of millions of years ago before there were any mammals, it is said.
The problem with assigning the more advanced emotions to cats such as jealousy, empathy and grief is that they require the cat to have some understanding of the mental processes of other animals.
It is believed that cats and dogs are unlikely to understand what other cats and dogs are thinking. In addition, cats live very much in the present. Both these aspects of cat thinking indicate that cats don’t feel jealousy as we do but, at a basic level jealousy, is an emotion which simply requires that the cat sees another cat getting more of something that it should get. Therefore a cat is likely to feel jealousy.
Cat owners sometimes report that when they stroke one of their cats the other intervenes; a simple test of the presence of the emotion of jealousy in cats.
Although play is a way for a kitten to train to hunt it is generally believed that kittens also play because they like to do it; it provides the emotion of happiness which is why they play more than they need to in order to train to hunt.
It is also generally believed by cat owners that cats are able to love which is demonstrated in very many ways in their relationship with their human caretakers.
However, people don’t agree on the range of emotions that their cats are able to feel. In a 2008 survey of British cat owners it was revealed that almost all of them believe that their cat could feel affection, fear and joy. Surprisingly, almost one fifth weren’t sure whether the cat was able to experience the emotion of anger.
Below is a chart which sets out the beliefs of British cat owners in relation to their cat’s emotions:
The old adage “curiosity killed the cat” comes from an earlier version “care killed the cat” in which the word “care” refers to worrying about something. Bringing this adage into the modern day it can be translated into anxiety and despite the fact that a quarter of British cat owners thought that their cat was incapable of feeling anxiety or sadness (which I personally find very surprising) it could be argued that anxiety plays a major role in a cat’s life.
It is said by some experts that anxiety can be a serious and real affliction for many cats. Dr. Bradshaw defines anxiety as a fear of something that is not currently happening. Some anxiety reducing drugs prescribed for people have been found to reduce symptoms of anxiety in cats which tends to indicate that cats feel anxiety although it might not be exactly the same as the anxiety that we feel.
So what are the sort of things that cause cat anxiety? The most common cause is probably worrying about the potential invasion of their territory by other cats in the neighborhood and sometimes by other cats within the household.
Bradshaw, a cat behaviorist, refers to a survey of 90 cat owners in suburban Hampshire and in rural Devon in the UK, in 2000, in which they reported that almost 50% of their cats regularly fought with other cats while two-fifths were fearful of cats in general.
A colleague of Dr Bradshaw, Rachel Casey, a veterinarian who specializes in cat behavioral disorders states that she regularly diagnoses anxiety and fear as the main reasons which causes cats to urinate and defecate indoors but not in the litter tray.
She states that some cats go further and spray the walls or furniture with urine with the intention of deterring other cats from entering their space within the home. Interestingly, she states that some cats locate the point in the house which is farthest from the cat flap and urinate at that point as a way to avoid attracting the attention of any other cats because of a fear of them.
In other desperate situations some cats defecate on the bed sheets in an attempt to mingle their own scent with the scent of their owner to establish ownership “at the core of the house”.
One feline illness which is well known to be closely linked to anxiety and therefore stress is cystitis. When cystitis is caused by stress it is referred to by veterinarians as idiopathic cystitis because there is no obvious cause for it.
We are told, that up to two-thirds of cats attending veterinary clinics for urination problems such as blood in the urine or difficult and painful urination or urinating in the wrong place have no obvious medical reason for this other than an inflammation of the bladder and/or intermittent blockage of the urethra by mucus which displaces the bladder wall.
Research indicates that the most common reasons for the psychological problems that cause cystitis are cats living with other cats in the same household. In addition, conflict between cats outside of the home can also cause cystitis. It appears that the more timid cat who runs away from other cats in his garden will be more stressed and therefore more likely to suffer from cystitis. This is surely an example of a lack of control of their environment and cats like to control their territory.
Female cats suffer from cystitis less than males. There are two possible reasons for this. Firstly, the tube leading out of the bladder, the urethra, is normally narrower in male cats and therefore more likely to become blocked. The other more obvious reason is that usually males are more territorial and less sociable than females and therefore more likely to come into conflict with other cats and less likely to resolve conflicts in a sociable way.
Colleagues of Dr. Bradshaw at Bristol University Veterinary School reported on one case which involved a 5-year-old male cat who was having difficulty in urinating and his urine was bloody. He also showed signs of stress by over-grooming his abdomen. This individual cat was one of six in a multi-cat household but he wasn’t friendly with any of them. He had been attacked by cats from neighboring homes. His cystitis was cured by allowing him to have his own exclusive area within the house including his own food bowl and litter tray which the other cats could not access. His view of the garden was blocked so he couldn’t see any cats coming into the garden.
Many people believe that cats experience the emotion of grief because their behavior changes when a cat they knew disappears. I think there is evidence in many videos on the Internet which indicates that cats do experience grief but some scientists believe that cats simply experience temporary anxiety which disappears when all traces of the missing cat have disappeared.
The emotions of guilt and pride demands that cats possess a level of cognitive sophistication which people think they do not have because the emotion demands the ability to compare their actions against standards which they have set themselves. These emotions are referred to as self-conscious emotions and the jury is out as to whether cats are able to be self-conscious.
The conclusion to this long discussion is that cats unquestionably have gut feelings and quite possibly a higher levels of emotion than we as yet don’t fully understand.