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Do Cats Have Emotions ? – Part 1

| October 27, 2010
According to many pet owners, the answer is "yes". Cats display a range of feelings including pleasure, frustration and affection. Other feline behaviour is attributed to jealousy, frustration and even vengefulness.

According to many pet owners, the answer is "yes". Cats display a range of feelings including pleasure, frustration and affection. Other feline behaviour is attributed to jealousy, frustration and even vengefulness.

“Emotion” is the term we use for feelings, some of which are instinctive and some of which are learned from those around us as we conform to society’s expectations and norms. Human emotions range from “primitive” feelings such as disgust, rage, fear and lust to “complex” emotions compassion and jealousy.

Recent studies, especially in fields such as neuropsychology, show that the more “primitive” or basic emotions have a physiological basis and may be caused by chemical stimuli (such as sexual attractant scents called pheromones) or visual stimuli. Basic emotions appear to cause chemical changes in the body in response to a stimulus.

This article looks at feline feelings. In places it compares or contrasts human and feline responses or makes references to other animals for illustrative purposes.


Do cats (and other higher animals) have feelings? Can they respond emotionally?

According to many pet owners, the answer is “yes”. Cats display a range of feelings including pleasure, frustration and affection. Other feline behaviour is attributed to jealousy, frustration and even vengefulness. Owners base their answer on observation of feline behaviour, but without an understanding of what makes a cat tick, they risk crediting a cat with emotions it does not feel as well as recognising genuine feline emotions. Owners who veer too far into the “Did my ickle-wickle fluffy-wuffikins miss his mummy then?” approach may not understand (or not want to accept) that a cat’s emotions evolved to suit very different situations to our own.

Cats and humans are built much the same way and share many of the senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch – as well as having additional “senses” which are adaptations to our particular environments and lifestyles (e.g. the Flehmen taste-smell reaction in cats). Though humans have better vision, cats have better smell, taste and hearing. Like us, cats feel heat, cold, pain and other physical sensations. Physical stimuli may lead to physiological responses, some of which are termed emotions. If humans and cats have similar responses to, for example, the smell of enticing food, they may share certain emotions e.g. happiness at the prospect of a satisfying meal.

According to many scientists, however, the answer is “no”. They argue that humans like to anthropomorphise (attribute human qualities to non-human animals) and regard pets as surrogate children. We interpret their instinctive behaviours according to our own wide range of emotions. We credit them with feelings they do not have. Some scientists deny that animals, including cats and dogs, are anything more than flesh-and-blood “machines” programmed for survival and reproduction. Others, such as pet behaviourists, credit animals with some degree of emotional response and a limited range of emotions (limited in comparison to humans, that is).

Many researchers’ scepticism is fuelled by their professional aversion to anthropomorphism, but others have a more sinister motive. Those who deny animals any feelings at all may do so in order to justify animal experiments which others consider inhumane. This denial of animal emotions allows them to conduct experiments with little regard for their subjects’ physical or mental wellbeing. The denial of animal emotions is their own hidden agenda rather than a conclusion based on study of behaviour.

Some religions teach that man is superior to animals and, by extension, animals do not have feeling. Some cultures do not recognise animals as thinking, feeling entities, for example the Chinese term for animal equates to “moving thing” and animals in food markets are treated as though they are no more than unfeeling, moving, vocalising vegetables. Politicians and those opposed to “animal rights” believe that according animals emotions would accord them rights (possibly rights equal to humans), changing the whole human/animal relationship and making pet-keeping, farming, hunting and experimentation unacceptable (many people already argue that hunting and experimentation are unacceptable on grounds of unnecessary cruelty). They argue that humans would be reduced to animal status with all that entails: culling, enforced sterilisation, selective breeding etc and pretty soon the word “Nazi” gets bandied about (ironically Hitler banned hunting).

Are either of these polarised views correct or do cats also share certain emotions, perhaps a limited subset of the emotions we feel? To find out, we must observe our own and our cats’ responses to situations and analyse what an emotion is.


Charles Darwin concluded that animals do indeed have emotions. He went on to explore the extent of animal emotions and found there to be emotional and cognitive continuity between humans and animals i.e. there are not enormous gaps between animals, but rather a continuous range from unintelligent, unemotional “primitive” creatures through to highly emotional and intelligent humans. Where there were gaps, these were differences in degree rather than differences in the kinds of emotions. While Darwin accorded animals varying degrees of emotion, many scientists have avoided the issue of animal emotions by putting quote marks around words such as “nervous” or “fearful”. This indicated that the animals acted as if they felt those emotions, but they did not actually have those emotions and the attribution of emotions was therefore anthropomorphic on the part of the scientific observer, hence the quote marks.

In order to understand emotions, scientists have studied how emotions are formed, and how they relate to the rest of the body and to the outside world. To do this, they have looked at how the brain works, often by looking at how the individual brain cells are linked together and how they interact and by looking at what happens when parts of the brain are deliberately or accidentally damaged. The brain contains neurons (nerve cells) which communicate across synapses. The communication takes the form of electrical impulses from one end of a nerve cell to another, and chemicals across synapses between the nerve cells. By measuring electrical impulses and levels of certain chemicals, and by interfering with these, researchers investigate how the brain works. Electrodes placed in certain locations in the brain to can be used to trigger specific emotions. Continual stimulation of part of the amygdala to induce terror eventually results in the animal’s death.

These methods are invasive and stressful to the animal (which ends up terminally damaged in the course of experimentation or is killed when no longer required) – little wonder scientists thought animals could not feel happiness. Even after death, the animal’s brain could be dissected or sliced and stained for microscopy to see whether certain emotions (such as prolonged terror) caused permanent changes in the brain. Other methods look at how the brain operates as a whole, viewing it in action rather than dissecting a dead brain. Brainwaves can be measured using electroencephalographs (EEG) and scalp electrodes; there are other techniques such as MRI scans (magnetic resonance imaging), CAT scans (computer-assisted tomography) and PET scans (positron-emission tomography). Some of these can be used when the person or animal is in its natural environment.

Psycho-pharmacologists use medication to study the changes in animal behaviour. The test subjects are injected with drugs and their behavioural and emotional changes are measured. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is linked to both information processing and to emotion; chemicals that interfere with REM sleep lead to increased irritability and anger (and ultimately in death). Not all tests are conducted for the express purpose of researching animal behaviour/emotions – findings sometimes fall out of tests where animals are used to model the effect of drugs on humans.

Behaviour geneticists have selectively bred or genetically modified animals to find out which genes are associated with which emotions and whether how those genes (and their effects) are inherited and can be manipulated. As a result, there are laboratory strains of laid back mice and highly strung mice. The same can be seen in cats – from laid back Ragdolls and placid Persians, through to “hyper” Siamese. Geneticists have further investigated how emotions are affected when certain bodily characteristics are changed. It turns out that emotions involve the interaction of sensory organs, nervous system and other parts of the body.

In experimental psychology, there are 3 main schools of thought regarding emotions. The categorical approach assumes that certain emotions (fear, joy etc) arise from inside the brain and can be measured through biological changes. The social-constructivist approach focuses on how animals use emotions to communicate or relate to other animals. The componential approach considers emotions to be comprised of rewards and learning.

Studies, in fields as distant as ethology (study of behaviour) and neurobiology, support the argument in favour of animal emotions. Even the most sceptical scientists agree that many creatures experience fear. This is because fear is considered a simple instinctive feeling that requires no conscious thought. Hard-wired into the brain, fear is essential for escaping from predators and tackling other threats. Fear underlies the fight or flight response as can be seen when some young birds freeze at the sight of a hawk-shaped silhouette overhead, but not at the sight of a pigeon-shaped silhouette, even if they have never seen a real hawk. Fear also raises the heart-rate and blood-pressure.

Fear is hard-wired and requires no conscious thought, but the existence of more complex animal emotions that involve mental processing is harder to demonstrate. Because complex feelings are intangible and hard to study under laboratory conditions, many researchers regarded the field of studying emotions as unrewarding. Modern, media-friendly (“How the brain works!”) disciplines of neuroscience and neuropsychology have changed this. Scientists also recognise the importance of field observations, as long s those observations are recorded carefully, impartially and there are enough observations.

One of the most obvious animal emotions is pleasure. It is evident when your cat snuggles up purring and when it plays. Although play is an important part of learning and honing life skills in youngsters, it is quite obviously also fun otherwise adult cats wouldn’t bother playing. There is some evidence that playing, or at least the physical exertion aspect of play, releases “feel-good” hormones in the brain, giving a sense of wellbeing. When rats play, their brains release dopamine, a neurochemical associated with pleasure and excitement. When a rat anticipates a play session, dopamine is released, making it active, vocal and excited (the effect of this can be seen by dosing rats with dopamine-blockers). Happy rats also produce opiates, another feel-good neurochemical.

Grief has also been observed in many wild species following the death of a mate, parent, offspring or pack-mate. Feline grief at the death of a long-term human or feline companion can include severe mental disturbance. Grief varies according to the individuals and some cats show little grief while others can be deeply traumatised. This variability leads some scientists to insist that observation of grief in cats is anthropomorphism on the part of the owner. Such scientists forget, or ignore, that fact that humans are equally variable in how they express grief.

In humans, the hormone oxytocin, is associated with sexual activity and maternal bonding. Experiments with monogamous prairie voles shows it affects attachment among animals. Oxytocin injections trigger mate choosing behaviour in female prairie voles, while blocking oxytocin prevents those females from choosing a partner at all. Oxytocin causes prairie voles to “fall in love” (or more accurately, to “fall in lust”).

Emotions are therefore accompanied by biochemical changes in the brain. Fear is accompanied by the production of brain chemicals that cause alertness and readiness to flee; pleasure triggers the release of “feel-good” brain chemicals. Long-term production of stress hormones can damage the hippocampus (the part of the brain central to learning and memory) and experiments show that stressed-out mothers have more problems producing healthy offspring. Other emotions are not so biologically clear-cut, for example “shame” and “embarrassment” are “social emotions” – the result of attaching emotional meanings to, respectively, unacceptable or inappropriate behaviours. While emotions such as fear and pleasure are common to humans and animals, researchers cannot agree on how great a role social emotions play in non-human animals.

The limbic system is the part of the brain associated with many emotions; experiments show it is active when an animal or person is frustrated while damage to that area produces aggressive-impulsive behaviour. In evolutionary terms, the limbic system is an ancient part of the brain and is not exclusive to humans: animals have emotions, but only humans rationalise those emotions and agonise over their feelings.

The amygdala, an almond-shaped structure in the centre of the brain, is closely linked to fear. Brain-imaging studies in humans show that the amygdala is activated when the person experiences fear. Stimulating a certain part of the amygdala with an electrode induces a state of intense fear. Animals, including ourselves, whose amygdalas are damaged do not show normal responses to danger and seem unable to be afraid when placed in dangerous situations. The amygdala is implicated in other emotions as well.

The question of whether animals have emotions is often confused with whether or not animals are conscious. Though cats have some self-awareness, they do not have consciousness in the same way as humans. Cats will play with their mirror reflections even though they know that there is no cat inside the mirror, however, cats do not recognise the mirror images as being themselves. Human language also confuses the issues of “emotion” and “consciousness”; often when we talk about how we feel it is unclear whether we are referring to our emotional state or to self-awareness.


Laboratory animals and animals in a wild (or domestic) environment behave differently. They have different surroundings. Their interaction with other animals and with humans are very different. Laboratory animals may have little opportunity for social contact with others or their responses may have been impaired through experimentation or genetics . Some animals are selectively bred for specific traits and they may not exhibit “typical” or representative behaviour.

Emotions cannot exist in a vacuum – they are (in part) a response to external factors. Many laboratory animals show aberrant behaviour (e.g. self-mutilation, faeces-eating) due to their sterile environment. These are signs of stress and depression, but are often not termed as such for reasons mentioned earlier. It is recognised that animals suffer in these conditions, for example animals in some of the worst zoos show behavioural/emotional problems: repetitive pacing/rocking and psychological problems.

Animals respond to their environment. It is not possible to accurately assess the normal psychological responses of a creature which is treated as an unfeeling biological machine and kept in an unstimulating or highly abnormal environment. This is just as dangerous as anthropomorphising animals in a cutesy fashion. Animal rights/animal welfare campaigners are often accused of inappropriately attributing emotions to animals. To recognise animal emotions would cause problems for experimental laboratories who do not wish to make potentially expensive changes to the environment in which their disposable living “tools” are stored.

Animal experimentation scientists argue that animals are not fully capable of suffering because they cannot anticipate future events. While cats cannot anticipate irregular events or far future events in the way that we can, cats have an excellent sense of time and can anticipate regular and near future events such as the owner’s return from work at a similar time each day. Ironically, the feline sense of time and ability to anticipate regular events (such as food being delivered) has been tested in laboratory experiments. Cats are equally capable of anticipating unpleasant regular events, such as daily experimental routines, and display fear or aggression when approached by the experimenter.

Even in the less invasive techniques, scientific methods do not like to have too many variables. Scientists prefer to measure one variable at a time. Unlike inanimate properties such as temperature or pressure which are individually controllable in laboratory conditions, emotions cannot be isolated. Environmental factors must be manipulated in order to produce an emotional change. Individuals may react in different ways to the same environmental change. This makes the study of emotions in laboratory conditions frustrating. Many scientists claim it is impossible to prove animals have emotions using standard scientific methods: repeatable observations that can be manipulated in controlled experiments. Hence they conclude that animal emotions must not exist. This is a drawback of scientific methods. Many humans do not display typical emotions in lab conditions due to the unnatural methods use and the invasive methods, yet no-one denies that humans have emotions.

To properly assess animal emotions, scientists and animal behaviourists must study animals in the field or in the home. The environment can be manipulated, but cannot be controlled absolutely. What is important is how the animal behaves in its own environment and how it interacts with its environment and with others. The observer must interpret the behaviour and decide whether the subject is fearful, apprehensive, angry etc. To ensure a consistent approach, the animal’s behaviour may classified according to a shortlist of likely emotions or on a sliding scale for a particular attribute e.g. fearfulness or curiousness. Similar methods are used in assessing the behaviour of very young children.

A growing number of farmers, particularly those in the organic sector, are recognising the need for animals to express instinctive behaviours. Although some stress is unavoidable in farming, animals which suffer minimal stress may be more productive, have better immune systems, be less prone to disease and have a lower mortality (wastage) rate. This is even more apparent in zoos and wildlife parks where environmental enrichment and encouragement of natural behaviour has led to “happier” (less stressed) animals more likely to breed successfully in captivity.

Recognition that animals have emotions can be taken too far and is prone to misinterpretation. The human tendency to project human-style thoughts, motivations and desires into animals can result in pets being treated as small furry humans who ought to love us and show gratitude. While our cats probably do love us and feel gratitude (in the feline sense of love and gratitude) they may suffer the consequences of our unrealistic expectations because they don’t show gratitude in a human sense or in sufficient quantities (based on the amount a human would show) – they display gratitude by being happy cats, not by fawning.

Pet cats have traits that humans find desirable: friendliness, playfulness, cuteness and dependence. These are retained juvenile (kittenhood) characteristics, since wild and feral adult cats are wary, independent and more solitary in nature. Despite selective breeding for physical traits and friendliness to humans, cats are behaviourally the same as their wild ancestors, but they have adapted their innate behaviours to suit a domestic situation.

Owners rely on feline behaviour and body language for clues about its emotional state. In this respect, dogs are considered to be more expressive than cats. Dogs evolved elaborate systems for social communication in a pack; the human household is a surrogate pack, therefore dogs communicate with owners as they would other dogs. Dogs transfer their dog-to-dog social behaviours into dog-to-human communication. Many dog owners misinterpret the submissive or juvenile behaviour of a lower-ranking dog (towards its higher ranking owner) as affection.

Cats are more solitary than dogs and have looser social structures (most often colonies centred around food sources). Like dogs they apply this to the household, but the feline social system is not based on pack hierarchies hence cats appear more aloof than dogs. Cats don’t display the same range of submissive or appeasement behaviours because they don’t live in hierarchical packs. Feline affection takes the form of rubbing, purring, head-butting, lap-sitting and interaction with the owner.

It’s easy for humans to misunderstand feline behaviours and intentions. Urinating on the bed is often thought to be “anger”, “spite” or “vengeance” to punish an owner who has gone away for a few days. The same is believed if a cat sprays the owner’s suitcase when the owner returns from holiday. The suitcase carries lots of new smells, possibly smells of other animals, and the cat is simply over-spraying those smells with its own scent to reassert its ownership of suitcase. Some cats become nervous when the owner is away; urinating on the bed or the owner’s favourite chair mixes the cat’s scent with the owner’s scents and is the cat’s attempt to create a combined smell to deter possible intruders who might take advantage of the owner’s absence (regardless of whether there is a cat flap or not). This is one reason the cat needs to meet a pet-sitter before the owner goes on holiday – otherwise it may regard the pet-sitter as a threat.

The predatory instinct is hard-wired into the feline brain (electrical stimulation of a particular brain region triggers pouncing behaviour). Pet cats sometimes take prey home, either as a food gift for its surrogate family (in this respect the cat is relating to owners in the way a mother relates to kittens) or because the house is its den and hence a place to eat in safety and at leisure.


There is much argument as to whether animals experience emotions or are merely showing behavioural changes in response to their environment. Animal behaviourists recognise four basic behaviours which are found in most animals. These are termed “The Four Fs”. These are the four basic instinctive responses which aid survival.

Flight (or hide)
Feed (predation or foraging)
(mate or reproduce) – the crudity helps psychologists with the mnemonic (the polite mnemonic is fight, flight, feed, breed)

There is much argument as to whether animals experience emotions or are merely showing behavioural changes in response to their environment. Animal behaviourists recognise four basic behaviours which are found in most animals. These are termed "The Four Fs". These are the four basic instinctive responses which aid survival.

Animal behaviourists recognise four basic behaviours which are found in most animals.

The hormone adrenaline is a key player in these reactions. On encountering someone or something, the most immediate instinct is “Do I run away from it or stay and fight it?”. This is a self-preservation reaction. If neither of those reactions is triggered, the next instinct is “Do I eat it? Do I mate with it?”. If none of the 4 Fs apply the animal may exhibit curiosity or simply ignores the stimulus as irrelevant.

These behaviours can be modified through learning or conditioning. Cats will often ignore one another to avoid conflict. A cat raised alongside a rabbit may no longer have a “feed” response to that particular rabbit or to all rabbits. Pavlov demonstrated conditioning (learning) in his famous experiments where dogs were taught to associate a sound with the presentation of food. After a while, the dogs reacted to the sound even when food was not presented.

In humans, and probably in cats, these responses have two parallel routes through the brain. The “quick and dirty” route gives an instinctive, almost instant reaction. The “thinking” route takes slightly longer and modifies the animal’s reaction. Learning affects the thinking route. For example most animals will bolt (flight reaction) at a loud noise close by; gundogs and police horses are trained to stand their ground though they may still show instinctive startlement.

Four basic responses are sufficient for primitive animals. Humans, cats, dogs and other more advanced animals need more than four basic instincts if they are to cope with a rich and varied environment. A complex environment requires a greater complexity of response. Emotion contains both innate (hard-wired) and learned (acquired from experience) components. Over a period of time, a cat might modify the innate fight/flight response to an initially threatening situation; for example, instead of fleeing from the vacuum cleaner, it might simply remove itself to a vantage point on a book case.

The study of animal emotions generally defined in terms of an animal’s adaptive and integrative functions (types of learning) rather than the physiology of emotions. This looks at how an animal’s emotional states interact with its day-to-day functioning. Mental responses, in ourselves and in other animals, do not necessarily follow physiological reactions. For example, fearful rats have measurably higher levels of epinephrine levels; but injecting epinephrine into non-fearful rats does not make them fearful. Therefore there is a mental component involved and emotions are not induced by physiological changes alone.

Copyright & Credit:
Copyright 2009, Sarah Hartwell – MESSYBEAST.COM

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Category: Feline Behaviour, Feline Health and Care, Feline Resources

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