Do Cats Know and Express Love?

Most of us are incurable romantics. We think that feelings and expressions of love exist only within our species. But what about cats and other animals? Does anything akin to love exist in their world? The answer may surprise you, as it turns the love mirror back on us, revealing mysteries about our own struggles with l’amour.

Love Redefined
Until recently, poets, musicians and other creative individuals mostly defined love for us, coming up with traditions like Cupid and his arrow or St. Valentine’s Day celebrations. But a slew of recent scientific studies put the focus on love’s source of origin -- the brain.

Love turns out to be a valuable brain-initiated mechanism for species survival. It permits alliances between individuals, such as males and females, or parents and children, in order to facilitate breeding and infant care. Neuroscientists, such as Andreas Bartels of University College London, have determined that the brain-produced hormones oxytocin and vasopressin are real-life Love Potion No. 9s, leading to bonds between certain individuals.

Lions and Romantic Love
The feeling of “falling in love” is very specific, brain-imaging studies show. In humans, this can last for up to a few years, leading some people to constantly fall in and out of love or become addicted to that intense sense of attraction to another.

Domestic housecats have no need for extended male-female love in regards to reproduction. Lust, which appears in a different part of the brain, draws Toms and females together, but they then go their separate ways fairly quickly after mating, with mothers handling all parental duties. Lions are the one exception among cats, according to Jonathan Balcombe, author of the best-selling book Pleasurable Kingdom: Animals and the Nature of Feeling Good (MacMillan 2006). “Male lions will care for their cubs,” he explains.

Motherly Love
Romance isn’t the end all to love. “Emotions comparable to caring and romantic love are, without a doubt, expressed between a mother and her kittens,” explains Dr. Balcombe, who is also an animal behavior research scientist for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. A vivid example is the story of Scarlett, a calico cat who pulled her five kittens, one by one, from a burning building in New York in 1996. Her actions, which left Scarlett with lifelong debilitating injuries, were documented by Animal Planet, but Dr. Balcombe says such stories are not uncommon.

What Does Your Cat Think of You?
“Cats recognize we’re not cats,” he says, so the bond between you and your cat has no direct equal. Instead, Dr. Balcombe believes cats view us in various ways, depending on the circumstance. When you groom, pet or hold your cat, you may become like a mother or beloved sibling, since cats associate these activities with kittenhood and experiences shared among brothers and sisters.

Dr. Balcombe suspects cats also value companionship. “I’ve noticed that whenever I’m in a room working alone, my cats often come in to join me, attempting to get my attention,” he says. “They could go anywhere, but they seem to desire my company.” He admits that selfish reasons, such as a warm lap on a cold day, might sometimes motivate felines, but there are times when companionship alone is the only reward.

Feel the Love
Since love is tied to pleasure seeking and personal rewards, you can demonstrate your fondness for your cat in ways that your feline friend will understand. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Try grasping and massaging your cat at the back of its neck, Dr. Balcombe advises. That’s what your cat’s mother did, so you will be reminding your pet of motherly love.
  • Schedule regular grooming sessions with your cat, in addition to frequent massages. Felines are very tactile creatures, so touch is key.
  • Cats exude contented absorption when kneading, Dr. Balcombe says. This is another activity linked to mother-kitten interaction. Instead of wincing when your cat may knead on you, place a blanket on your lap to absorb the claw piercing.
  • Playing helps to ease tension and to promote trust-forming hormones. Be sure to play with your cat as much as possible. Dr. Balcombe shares that one of his cat’s favorite toys is an unshelled hazelnut, rolling on the floor.

Romantic love is often fleeting, but the love between a parent and child, or between two friends or siblings, can last forever. That is the sort of love that likely exists between you and your cat. The relationship probably isn’t one-sided, either. “Love, warmth and caring seem to be expressed by cats,” Dr. Balcombe says. Your most loyal valentine could then very well be your feline friend.

by Jennifer Viegas