Do Cats Have Emotions? Are They Able to Have Feelings?

By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. May 18, 2020
Do Cats Have Emotions? Are They Able to Have Feelings?

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It is an all too common belief that cats are cold and distant animals. They are often unfavorably compared to dogs which paint the latter as being warm and affectionate where felines are cold and aloof. The truth is this is an unfair and unhelpful characterization, something anyone fortunate enough to share their life with a cat will know. Not only do cats have emotions, but they can express affection in a wide variety of ways.

However, when we at AnimalWised ask “Do cats have emotions?”, we need to make sure we understand how cats feel. How does a cat's emotional response compare to that of a human? We explain all about a cat's feelings to know more.

You may also be interested in: Do Dogs Have Feelings?

The difference between cat emotions and feelings

For us to understand the emotional capacity of cats, we need to distinguish between feelings and emotions. Although the two concepts are related, we often tend to confuse them. The reason is that the terms are quite abstract and are tied to the subjective experience of the individual. However, to know how cats feel, it is necessary for us to identify the difference between feline emotions and feelings.

What are emotions?

When we refer to emotions, we often do so from a perspective of the field of psychology. Under a psychological definition, emotions are a set of neurochemical and hormonal responses which predispose us to react in a certain way to a specific stimulus. For example, the sight of a snake will produce an immediate fear response in many animals, such as a mouse.

The fear emotion in these cases is due to an activation of the limbic system as an adaptive response to their environment. In this case, the animal responds because the stimulus threatens their physical well-being.

Although many emotional responses are instinctive, others are also due to learning. The information that the brain assimilates concerning a given experience will affect how an individual reacts when they experience it again. For example, if a cat has been abused in the past, they will most likely have an emotional fear response towards people. They will associate a negative experience with a certain stimuli and often will not change their response until they can associate it with something positive.

What are feelings?

Now we know that emotions are instinctual or learned responses to certain stimuli, what are feelings? Feelings are also closely related to the limbic system, but we need to make a key distinction. Feelings are also a kind of emotional response, but one which includes the conscious evaluation of a given experience. A simplification of the difference is that feelings are a conscious experience, whereas feelings are unconscious or subconscious. However, this is very much a generalization.

Both concepts have to do with the subjective way in which we experience a situation. Emotions are basic and one-way. They appear as a response immediately when the stimulus appears. Instead, feelings are part of a reflective and self-conscious process. For example, you can be happy when you remember a memory you have identified as happy. Conversely, many people have a keen interest in reptiles and will feel jubilant when they see one in the wild. Feelings are able to be analyzed. They can be reflected upon and determined to be rational or not.

Do Cats Have Emotions? Are They Able to Have Feelings? - The difference between cat emotions and feelings

How do cats feel?

Now that we know the difference between emotion and feeling, it's easier to understand how cats feel. However, to do so, we need to avoid using our human perspective to understand their own. We need to think from the experience of the cat.

Humans are animals with the ability to self-reflect. This allows us to develop a concept of self, distinguish ourselves form other individuals and feel complex emotions such as guilt or shame. It has not been proven that cats possess this ability, so we cannot attribute self-awareness to them.

It is important we make these distinctions because it affects our relationship with the cat. For example, some people shout at their cat and assume they will understand the context, but an inability to self-reflect on behavior means the animal will be confused and may create negative associations.

Cats are purely emotional animals which respond to different situations in the most appropriate way given the context. These result in fear behaviors when they are confronted with something they perceive as dangerous and joy when they experience something gratifying. For this reason, it is not believe that cats have feelings as we would experience them. They live in the present moment. While they can learn from their experiences, this is not the same as reflecting upon them.

Although emotional responses in cats are basic and immediate, they do evolve over time. How this happens depends on the specific experiences acquired, the situation in which they happen and which stimuli are involved. For this reason, it is not uncommon for a cat to be scared of dogs they meet on the street, but loving towards a dog with whom they share a home. They have learned the latter dog is not a threat and they create an emotional bond.

Do Cats Have Emotions? Are They Able to Have Feelings? - How do cats feel?

How do you know if your cat loves you?

If you have a feline in your family, there should be little doubt as to whether your cat loves you. They not only love you, but show this love through various signs. Cats are very peculiar animals with a wide range of communication with which they can express how they feel. Among the most important ways for a cat to express affection toward you are:

In fact, it has been empirically proven that cats create a bond of attachment with people, similar to how an infant would. We understand attachment as being a biological behavior whereby the cat perceives their human guardian as their source of physical and emotional security. For this reason, cats often see us as a surrogate mother figure since we provide them with food, shelter, care and affection. These are all key elements of their well-being which generate positive emotions associated with you.

Despite the facts cats can be somewhat temperamental animals with less faculty for reason, this is in no way an impediment to their ability to feel affection toward other individuals. We must not forget that cats are social animals. Their reputation for being antisocial and independent is a misinterpretation of feline behavior. Cats need other individuals to survive, so expressing and reciprocating affection is of vital importance to our feline friends.

For this reason, some people have asked further questions about human/feline relationships. Some people even ask whether cats miss their owners when they are away.

If you want to read similar articles to Do Cats Have Emotions? Are They Able to Have Feelings?, we recommend you visit our Facts about the animal kingdom category.

  • Kristyn R. V., Alexandra C. B., & Udell, M. (2019) Attachment bonds between domestic cats and humans. Current Biology, 29(18).
  • Milani, M. (1987) The Body Language and Emotion of Cats. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.
  • Pallarés, M. (2010). Emotions and feelings. MARGE BOOKS.

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