Science Explains Whether or Not Your Cat Loves You

Many people find it challenging to understand the relationship between humans and cats. While the devotion a dog has for its family is clear to see, it is often trickier to read a cat’s emotions and to tell how they truly feel. It may lead many cat owners to wonder if their cat loves them at all. In an attempt to answer this question, Inverse interviewed three animal experts about how a cat owner can tell if their cat loves them or not. Here is what the experts had to say on the subject.

Defining Love

Before experts can answer the question, ‘does my cat love me?’, they must first determine what is meant by love. It is a hard feeling to define and quantify, as it may mean different things to different people. Love is even harder to define when relating the emotion to another species, as they cannot tell you how they feel. However, there is evidence that many other species share the same emotions as humans. These are views shared by the three experts interviewed, who are Kristyn Vitale, Valerie V. Tynes, and Katherine Pankratz. Vitale is a professor in animal health and behavior at Unity College, and she is also a cat researcher. Tynes is a veterinary services specialist based at Ceva Animal Health. Pankratz is a board-certified veterinarian who works at the Animal Behavior Clinic.

Cat Affiliative Behaviors

It is important to understand how love looks to a cat to understand whether cats can love humans. According to Tynes and Pankratz, some animals have affiliative behaviors to form bonds with other species, and this can include humans. Examples of typical cat affiliative behaviors are:

  • Rubbing its head against an individual or head bunting
  • Sleeping close to an individual
  • Cheek and facial rubbing against an individual
  • Wrapping its tail around an individual
  • Walking alongside an individual
  • In the case of other cats, mutual grooming

Pankratz says that a combination of these gestures could potentially define a cat’s love and affection for another species, such as humans.

Attachment Bonds Between Cats and Humans

In addition to their affiliative behavior, cats and many other pets can form an attachment bond with their owner. Vitale led a research study that specifically looked at the formation of attachment bonds. She described this bond as an affectional and comforting relationship between two individuals, and it is possible for cats to develop this type of relationship with their owners. Vitale goes on to describe the secure base effect, which is a set of behavioral patterns that show the cat sees their owner as a source of security and comfort. One example of this is the behavior of the cat when its owner leaves the house and then returns. When the cat’s owner leaves, it may become distressed and not explore its surroundings. On its owner’s return, the cat may greet them, feel secure enough to explore its surroundings, and then return to its owner.

Is the Love of a Cat Unconditional?

The next stage in understanding whether cats love their owners or not is defining whether a cat’s love is conditional or unconditional. Conditional love means that the love is there if the owner is meeting the basic needs of the cat, such as providing food. Unconditional love means that a cat loves its owner regardless of whether its basic needs are met or not. According to Tynes, there is very little evidence to support conditional or unconditional love of cats one way or the other. However, she makes a direct comparison between cats and dogs where unconditional love includes putting up with ill-treatment. She says that cats are less likely to put up with this behavior than dogs. In many cases, a dog will still display affection towards its owner, even if they have been punished or harmed in some way by their owner. Tynes believes that cats are more sensitive to punishment than dogs, and it can break the bond. Pankratz takes a different approach to analyze a cat’s ability to show unconditional love. In her opinion, it is not necessarily about whether the cat still loves its owner but about how freely it can express that love. If the trust is broken, then the cat may still feel love towards its owner. However, they do not feel that they can express their love in the same way.

Cats’ Interpretations of Human Love and Affection

Love is a two-way street, so it is just as important to understand how cats interpret love from humans as it is to understand whether cats love their owners. Scientists have now begun looking at cats’ interpretations of human love and affection. A 2016 study into animal emotions was published in the Animal Cognition journal. The aim of the study was to gain a better understanding of feline interpretations of human emotions, such as happiness and anger. In the study, cats were presented with various facial expressions. They were also exposed to conversations between their owner and one of the researchers, who were unfamiliar with the cats. They found that domestic cats showed only modest sensitivity to emotions. The findings suggested that a cat cannot gauge human emotions simply from human interaction. Although cat owners may feel disappointed to learn that their cat is unlikely to grasp their emotions, Tynes says that there is other research that shows cats can develop an attachment, but not with strangers.

How Much Do Cats Love Humans?

Another interesting question is whether some cats can show more love than others. Pankratz says that like humans have different personalities, cats may also have unique personalities and different ways of demonstrating their love and affection. Therefore, it is not necessarily a case of whether a cat is more or less loving, it is a cat’s personality type and its experiences that influence their behaviors and how they express emotion.

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