Do Cats Have Emotions?

by Sarah Hartwell
View Biography
 

"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.

Two Polarized Views

According to many pet owners, the answer is "yes". Cats display a range of feelings including pleasure, frustration and affection. Other feline behavior is attributed to jealousy, frustration and even vengefulness. Owners base their answer on observation of feline behavior, but without an understanding of what makes a cat tick, they risk crediting a cat with emotions it does not feel as well as recognizing 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 animals, regarding pets as surrogate children. We interpret their instinctive behaviors 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 credit animals with some degree of emotional response.

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 well-being. The denial of animal emotions is their own hidden agenda rather than a conclusion based on study of behavior. Are either of these polarized 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 analyze what an emotion is.

In the Lab and in the Field

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