Girl with purple sweater holding her cat

Do cats love their owners? A modern look into feline bonding

“Do they love the treats, or do they love you?”

Cats have always had a reputation for being aloof and independent, which raises a very intriguing question: do cats really love their owners or are they just tolerating us in exchange for food and shelter? Join us as our very own cat enthusiast Carla, shares some surprising insights from the latest research into the ways that cats bond with their owners.

The scoop:

Contrary to popular belief, recent studies have revealed that cats are perfectly capable of loving their owners. However, this relationship is far more complex than the relationship between a dog and its owner. Having evolved to be self-dependent, cats are much more subtle when it comes to showing their feelings. They tend to express love as a sign of trust, rather than full-on cuddling.

Can cats love?

A complex question that has not only intrigued cat owners but also scientists! To find out whether cats can love, we first need to look into whether they NEED to love (from an evolutionary perspective). The reputation of cats as aloof is pretty much based in scientific fact if you think about it. Of the 40 known wild species in the Felidae family, 39 of them are completely solitary! Lions are the only species that live and hunt in groups.

So what does this tell us about our domestic felines? It would be logical to assume that cats have not needed to develop complex emotions like love and guilt, as they have lived alone for generations! Yet, every cat owner (including me!) will say their beloved feline companions show genuine signs of affection all the time, like purring and rubbing.

Does this mean our domestic kitty’s have gained the capacity to love because of us? Domestic cats have had to deal with a multitude of lifestyle changes compared to their wild ancestors. This has caused them to adapt their behaviors and communication methods. Take a look at meowing for instance. It may surprise you to know that cats do not meow to communicate with each other, except in mother-kitten relationships (think of a mummy cat meowing at her kittens to signal its dinner time!). In recent years, scientists have come to understand that meowing is actually a vocalization specifically designed for cats to communicate with their human companions. Studies have even found that a cat’s urgent’ or ‘demanding’ cry mimics the frequency of a baby’s cry [2].

Whether meowing is a signal of needs, or a demonstration of love, is still being researched. But more and more studies are suggesting that cats do have the capacity to love [2,3.5]. But, let’s face it, as owners we already knew that!

Are cats socially intelligent?

Social intelligence is the ability to form and manage relationships, which involves a certain level of emotional intelligence and self-awareness. So, it is a very important question to ask in our quest for the answer to ‘do cats love their owners?’. For a long time, experts believed that domestic and feral cats had no social structure at all. However, they were wrong! Recent observations have found that feral cats form loose hierarchies (usually around a food source), with a female as top dog. However, the cats generally come and go as they please.

Domestic cats display similar traits. Your cat may simply ignore you one minute and then be begging for attention the next. They always want everything on their own terms! This desire for independence is a trait of their wild ancestor (the solitary African Wild Cat [1]) which is still present even after 4000 years of domestication!

So, a cats social structure may not be as rigid as the hierarchy of dogs, but it does suggest that cats can form bonds with others [6]. In fact, numerous studies have revealed that all cats are capable of showing affection [3]. They just express it in subtle ways that can be easily missed by owners.  

Can cats love their owners?

So, now we arrive at the million dollar question! Does your cat really love you? Love is an incredibly complex emotion that is difficult to assess. However, attachment could suggest love and it is much easier to determine. So lets start there!

In 2019, a study was conducted by Kristyn Vitale to assess attachment bonds between domestic cats and humans. For the experiment, she created a cat-friendly version of the strange situation test used to assess human-child bonds. Firstly, she instructed owners to spend two minutes in an unfamiliar room with their cats. Then, the owners left the room and the cats were left alone for a further two minutes. At the end of the experiment, the owners returned to the room and the cats were assessed by their reactions [3].

The results were surprising! Of the 108 cats tested, two-thirds of them displayed a secure attachment to their owner. This is very similar to the result of the parent-infant study!

In 2020, a separate study found cats selected more food from the owners that called their names whilst gazing at them, compared to the owners that didn’t gaze [5]. These results suggest that cats prefer to have a personal connection with their owners (which is another potential suggestion of love!). 

However, despite this mounting evidence, many scientists STILL believe that cats only respond to their owners because they get yummy treats from us. So, even though it looks like our feline companions love us, more research still needs to be done.

Do some cat breeds love their owners more than others?

As of 2022, there are at least 73 cat breeds recognized by The International Cat Association [7]. Some breeds are described as being independent, whereas others are considered to be highly social. These differences are likely caused by selective breeding.

Ragdolls, for instance, are in their element when they are curled up in their favorite persons’ arms! On the other hand, a domestic short-hair is usually happy to entertain itself for the day while its owner is at work. So, does this mean Ragdolls love their owners more than domestic short-haired cats? The short answer is no! These breeds just display affection in different ways.

Which is the best breed for me?

With this in mind, it is important that you choose the right breed for your lifestyle. If you are looking for a cuddly companion and work from home, consider adopting an affectionate Burmese or Bombay cat. If you are out of the house for long periods, you’re better off selecting a less clingy breed. Highly social cat breeds are prone to suffering from separation anxiety if they are left alone for too long. This can lead to inappropriate toileting, excessive vocalizations, and even a loss of appetite. So, it is important to do your research! If you are concerned that your cat is displaying signs of stress, it is always best to seek the advice of a vet.

How do I know if my cat has bonded with me?

Cats are not super obvious with their displays of affection. Instead, they use a variety of subtle body postures and movements to communicate their feelings. Study these tell-tail signs well, and see if you can recognize the signs that your cat loves you:

Slowly blinking at you is a sure sign of affection. Cats blink their eyes slowly to demonstrate their trust in you. Staring is considered a threatening behavior in the mind of a cat. So, by looking you directly in the eye and blinking, a cat is taking the risk of threat to expose vulnerability. 

2. Tail held high

So, you come home from work and your cat comes jogging over with his tail held high. Congratulations, your cat has missed you! Especially if the tip of the tail twitches from side to side. Take a look at this article if you want to know more about tail communication.

3. Kneading

This behavior which is also called making biscuits is performed by kittens to stimulate milk from their mother. You can consider this a very prominent sign that you are a beloved member of the family!

4. Facing away from you

It may seem a little odd to interpret this as a sign of love, but a cat turning its back on you is a good sign. Especially if its accompanied by a raised tail. Cats identify each other by scent, so sniffing the behind is considered to be as welcoming as a hug!

5. Napping on your lap

When a cat chooses to sleep on your lap, you can’t help but feel incredibly honored. Well, you should! Sleeping is a very vulnerable activity, so a cat napping on your lap is a strong sign of trust. 

Sources

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