Do Cats Get Jealous? - Signs and Behavioral Problems
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Many people claim that their cats are jealous when they carry out behaviors related to aggression or possessiveness. We have to be careful with how we ascribe emotions to cats. We humans can be too quick to look at a cat's behavior and determine they are feeling something they are not. Cats certainly look like they might be envious of other cats, animals or even humans, but do cats get jealous?
In this AnimalWised article, we look into jealousy in cats and how we might identify this behavior. We also look into inappropriate behavior in cats and how we might prevent it.
Jealousy in cats
To begin, we need to ask ourselves if it is correct to state that cats can indeed be jealous. We are helped in doing this by defining jealousy. This is a state where a person or animal is hostile toward a rival or one they believe has some advantage over them. It can also mean being envious of objects, i.e. wanting to have something which doesn't belong to them.
While we once believed only human beings were capable of jealous emotion, if we look a little deeper we can see that jealousy is an important adaptive emotional response in gregarious animals. In social groups, members compete for both their own survival and to establish social order.
Although the domestic cat (Felis silvestris catus) is a solitary animal, domestication has allowed the species to receive important advantages by participating in social dynamics. Human beings provide domestic cats with food, shelter and general care for their well-being. The bond cats develop with their human guardians can be very close and strong. They can also bond firmly with other domestic animals which adds to their sense of environmental enrichment. If the cat perceives their ‘valued social partner’ (whether cat, dog, human or whatever) is threatened by a third party or social rival, they may show jealous behaviors. Such behaviors include possessiveness and aggressiveness.
If you look on YouTube, there is little doubt that cats can be jealous. Videos depict felines getting envious over another cat receiving attention or getting a treat. However, although these behaviors seem like jealousy, there may be other impetuses behind them. We need scientific studies to confirm or deny whether cats can show true jealousy. Related studies have been carried out to cautiously confirm dogs display jealousy. Unfortunately, we do not have as many ethological publications on feline jealousy, so it is a relatively imprecise term.
Another part of the difficulty is trying to record jealous acts. Some studies have tried to quantify emotions in companions animals by asking pet guardians if they have witnessed them. One study points out that the behavior of domestic animals highlights certain similarities between them. This suggests there exists secondary emotions in animals that are not primates. A more recent study also claims that, although basic emotions are more attributed to companion animals, jealousy was an exception. Jealousy is a secondary emotion which seems to be more evident than other secondary emotions such as shame, disappointment or compassion.
Symptoms of a jealous cat
Without conclusive studies to guarantee the presence of jealousy in cats, it's difficult to find a behavior pattern which can describe it. However, we can look at the same behavior in other domestic animals and make some suggestions. This is why we highlight the following.
Jealous cat behavior:
- Feline regularly seeks the attention of a ‘valued social partner’.
- Pays close attention to the socialization of both ‘valued social partners’ and ‘social rivals’.
- Interrupts interactions between ‘valued social partners’ and ’social rivals’.
- Makes negative calming signals or displays aggressiveness towards ‘social rivals’.
There are significant differences between secondary emotions such as jealousy in animals when compared to humans. One of the most important is highlighted during a Scientific American Q&A with the cat and dog behaviorist John Bradshaw. When asked about whether cats can be jealous, Bradshaw's response was that “jealousy is an in-the-moment emotion they experience when they see that another individual is getting the attention they are craving: they don't remember being jealous once the moment is passed.”
While a cat's relationship with other members of their social group will develop and change, they are unlikely to hold grudges or exhibit complex jealousy traits. They may be regularly aggressive with an individual or form a rivalry, but this complicates the issue of jealousy in terms of competing for resources.
Why are cats jealous?
The behaviors we perceive as jealousy might actually be related to various behavioral problems stemming from poor socialization when younger. It could also be a problem related to past trauma or even territoriality over their perceived property. Below we highlight some of the situations which can show cats exhibiting jealousy towards a third party:
- New family member: pregnancy and the birth of a baby may result in significant loss of attention by their ‘valued social partner’. Additionally, many new parents might scold their cat for going toward their baby, even though they are only being curious. This can create negative associations towards the baby. It is essential to avoid punishment, quarrels or shouting on these occasions.
- Significant others: if you have ever seen a TV like MY Cat From Hell, you can see that problematic cats can often get between couples. For whatever reason, the cat becomes more attached to one person and exhibits aggression or possessiveness toward the other. It is a difficult situation to get over and one we might unconsciously reinforce through our own behavior.
- Another cat: cats are generally independent, but they can bond well with others. This usually requires early socialization and reassurance. When a new animal is introduced later on, it can be threatening to a cat's sense of territoriality. Different negative behaviors may appear such as aggression, excessive marking, fear or depression.
- Another animal: especially in cats that have not socialized with dogs in their early stages, the adoption of a canine usually causes a lot of stress. The cat's lack of knowledge of the body language of dogs combined with its large size may also cause similar behavior problems.
We should always be considerate of various possible causes of problem behavior in cats. Jealousy for no reason is unlikely and there may be other issues we are not considering. However, if we do think a cat is being jealous for whatever reason, there are some things we might be able to do to prevent it occurring in the future.
How to stop cat jealousy
Many people do not know what to do with a jealous cat, especially if they are unsure as to why they are displaying this behavior. The first thing we need to do is ensure security. If your cat is behaving aggressive towards a baby or another animal in the home, then it is essential we safeguard them from potential harm. A jealous cat can be an aggressive one. If this aggression is directed at a vulnerable party, then they will need protection. Once basic one is refusing access to a baby's room.
In milder cases of feline jealousy, we can try to work it out with the cat. We need to positivize the presence of their perceived ‘social rival’. We need to associate the new family member with pleasant experiences. We can use tasty treats, caresses or reassuring words. Soothing pheromones might be used also to encourage a bond. If we put these positive pheromones on the new cat's collar, they may be more accepting. We need to be wary of too much intervention, however. The jealous cat may need more space for a sense of calm and safety.
However, in the most serious cases, preventing jealousy will be a very difficult process. It will be essential for us to go to a veterinarian specialized in ethology. Firstly, they will be able to rule put any underlying health problems causing the behavioral issues. Secondly, they can try to diagnose the behavioral problem, provide management guidelines and even carry out behavior modification sessions.
If you want to read similar articles to Do Cats Get Jealous? - Signs and Behavioral Problems, we recommend you visit our Behavioral problems category.
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- Prato-Previde, E., Nicotra, V., Poli, SF, Pelosi, A., & Valsecchi, P. (2018). Do Dogs Exhibit Jealous Behaviors when their Owner Attends to their Companion Dog?. Animal Cognition , 21 (5), 703-713.
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- Martins, P., Enders-Slegers, M-J., & Walker, J. K. (2016). The Emotional Lives of Companion Animals: Attachment and Subjective Claims by Owners of Cats and Dogs. Anthrozoõs, 29 (1), 73-88 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/297677398_The_Emotional_Lives_of_Companion_Animals_Attachment_and_Subjective_Claims_by_Owners_of_Cats_and_Dogs
- Scientific American. (2018). The Inner Life of Cats. Retrieved June 12, 2019, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-inner-life-of-cats/?redirect=1