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What Emotions Do Cats Feel?

Genevieve Dugal

By Genevieve Dugal

close up of calico cat

As a proud cat parent, you can usually tell your furry friend’s moods from their body language, facial expressions, the noises (spitting, hissing, meowing) they make, and even the way they are moving. Thus, cat owners usually know if their beloved feline is happy or angry.

However, even though a cat obviously has a rich emotional life, scientists can’t pinpoint exactly how happy, scared, or angry cats are. The short answer is that cats do experience a range of emotions, though they’re not quite the same as ours.

In Cat Language, What Is an Emotion?

Emotions are what cause cats to react. For example, the negative emotion of fear can cause cats to react aggressively, while the positive feelings of touching and petting can help them form relationships with other cats or with their human owners. Moreover, emotions can be positive or negative and they can have increasing or decreasing intensities.

For example, as a kitty’s feeling of joy increases, pleasure turns into elation, while frustration can turn into fear and rage and apprehension into fear and terror. Furthermore, animals (not just cats) with behavioral problems often tend to extremes when expressing their behavior.

Here are the most common emotions that cats can feel:
  • Curiosity
  • Joy
  • Fear
  • Depression
  • Excitement
  • Frustration
  • Anxiety
a cute yellow cat with collar on faux fur surface
Image Credit: majacvetojevic, Pixabay

What Are the Emotional Systems of Cats?

Recent studies suggest that cats have eight basic emotional systems that allow them to react to information transmitted to the brain through the senses. These systems include a desire-seeking system to find food, a fear-anxiety system to respond to unfamiliar events that may be dangerous, a social-play system, and a care system to raise offspring and form essential social bonds.

Besides, it is also suggested that cats can experience emotions in the same way as humans. But keep in mind that your cat is first and foremost an animal and that anthropomorphism can lead to misinterpretations of his emotions. For example, when you’re unsure of his mood or see him relaxing, it’s not always the best time to approach him. This is why learning to observe all the signals (ears, eyes, tail, body language, sounds) is essential to better understand his emotions and improve the relationship with your feline.

Treating Behavioral Problems in Cats by Observing Their Emotions

Feline behavior specialists know that emotions are key to understanding cats, even though it seems impossible to measure these emotions precisely. But they do rely on emotions to treat behavioral problems in pets.

So, recognizing that cats have emotions helps to find solutions to common behavioral problems, such as aggression, excessive cleaning, and anxiety.

Thus, the emotions felt by cats are not only indicators of their states of mind for their owners, but they are also valuable tools for professionals. Rather than simply observing the behavior of cats, veterinarians and feline behavior specialists take into account the emotions felt by cats to try to provide a more effective solution to their problems.

Scottish fold cat very angry and aggressive
Image by: Anatoliy Cherkas, Shutterstock

Can Cats Recognize Human Emotions?

It has long been believed that cats are incapable of showing empathy. However, a 2020 study on emotion recognition in cats demonstrated that felines integrate visual and auditory cues to recognize human emotions. Even better, it seems that cats adapt and modulate their behavior according to perceived human emotion. However, they don’t seem to react the same way as dogs, which would explain why your kitty doesn’t jump on your lap to comfort you when you cry your heart out on your couch!

That said, the results of this study show that cats do have social skills that allow them to understand human emotions, which is a key factor in strengthening the bond between humans and felines.

Final Thoughts

Cats may be mysterious creatures, but recent scientific advances shed a little more light on the complexity of their emotions. Indeed, cats have eight emotional systems that provide insight into their behaviors, although the intensity and exact measure of their emotions are still mysterious. But what you need to remember is that cats do experience a wide range of emotions, from fear and joy to curiosity, depression, and pleasure. And the amazing thing is that they can also understand human emotions, although they don’t necessarily react with the same empathy as their canine counterparts!

Featured Image Credit: Svetlbel, Pixabay

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