Which Emotions Do Cats Have?

Living with cats gives you a front-row seat to experience the range of emotions they display every day. Through their vocalizations, body language, and facial expressions, you can sense how your cat is feeling. But do you ever wonder which emotions cats have?

gray Scottish fold squat in the floor
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A cat's emotional range may include the "higher feelings" that some people associate only with humans, such as anger, happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, and surprise. But do cats feel more complex emotions such as jealousy, compassion, and love?

Are cats driven only by instinct?

Cat's genes have changed little over thousands of years of domestication — they are still more or less wild. Even though they share many traits with the big cats, house cats are a source of comfort and company for millions of pet parents. But instinct still plays a vital role in their behavior. Primal instincts motivate cats to hunt, catch, kill, and eat their prey. But cats are not purely instinct-driven. Although dogs get more press for their personalities and emotions, cats are just as multidimensional and intelligent, but they express their emotions in different ways.

What are emotions?

Emotions are a complex psychological and physiological response to a subjective experience. Behavioral experts hold different theories about how to measure and quantify them. Emotion classification systems vary but the "wheel of emotions" model introduced by Robert Plutchik in the 1980s makes a lot of sense. This theory divides emotions into eight primary dimensions like a color theory wheel. Much like an artist mixes paint colors, combining different emotions creates other emotions. The emotional wheel theory, although developed for humans, presents a realistic picture of a cat's emotional world where no emotion is black or white.

For example, your cat may feel either a positive or negative emotion when a new cat joins the family. That cute kitten you adopted at the local shelter may be a welcome little friend or a source of resentment. Your cat's reactions to the new family member of either happiness or anger are emotional responses. Her feelings may also include the more complex emotion of jealousy. If she loves the newcomer, you may sense she feels compassion and even love as she cuddles and grooms him.

Recognizing cat emotions

A content cat is generally relaxed and calm. Her ears will be up and slightly forward or may swivel towards nearby sounds. She may lie on her side or belly and tuck her feet underneath her, or lie on her back with her legs splayed. Her eyes may be half-closed or she may blink slowly. Purring or kneading with her paws are other signs of contentment.

A cat who is afraid or anxious will lie their ears back agains their heads. The closer to lying flat against her head they get, the more anxious they feel. A fearful cat's eyes will be open wide and their pupils may dilate. They may crouch closer to the ground or arch their back and raise the hair on their back and tail. An anxious cat's tail will be pulled in closer to their body and may move back and forth at the tip.

Does age or sex influence a cats' emotions?

Much of the research about cats and emotions is gathered from surveys with cat owners. It seems that older cats are less happy and more likely to express emotions such as disappointment, anger, and even sadness. Joy and surprise are associated more with young cats. Male cats seem overall to be more easy-going and female cats appear more likely to express disgust, jealousy, and disappointment.

Funny cat made a mess, tore up paper
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Can cats have emotional problems?

Just as humans can become anxious and stressed, cats can develop emotional issues in response to stressful situations and negative triggers such as fear or anger. Unfortunately, when cats have emotional problems, it can manifest in unpleasant ways.

Litter box avoidance affects thousands of cats surrendered to shelters each year. Some cats become aggressive, others reclusive. Emotional problems in cats, just as those in humans, can be distressing for anyone who loves them. Seek professional help from a cat behaviorist or veterinarian if the problem becomes overwhelming.

How to recognize aggression in cats.

Redirected aggression is an emotional problem that makes cats turn on the most convenient target rather than go after what or who caused him to be upset. The victim may be another cat, another pet in the household, or even you. When it involves two cats, you can separate them, then gradually reintroduce them as if they had never met.

Fear-induced aggression is another common emotional problem in cats. It occurs when cats feel threatened or trapped. Their sympathetic nervous system ignites their "fight or flight" reflex and when there is nowhere to flee, cats fight. A fear-aggressive cat is a dangerous cat. Play therapy can drain the energy from a fear-aggressive cat and reduce overall anxiety.

Not enough stimulation

Another common emotional problem in cats stems from the suppression of their instincts. Cats need to release their drive to hunt. When they don't get enough stimulation and play, behavioral problems may arise, such as scratching furniture, chronically knocking everything off shelves, stalking and pouncing on other pets in the house. Bored cats often hide behind curtains or bed skirts, and attack without warning. Regular playtime with your cat can help solve this annoying issue.