Does my cat love me?

Does he love me? I wanna know! How can I tell if he loves me so?

Cats have been living alongside humans for approximately 9000 years and they are firmly established as a household pet in many homes with approximately 17% of homes in the UK having a cat.

The cat has some very humanlike features which endear them to us and help to explain their appeal and, in the words of Mark Twain you “simply can’t resist a cat, particularly a purring one.”

There are clear health benefits to owning a cat too, such as having significantly lower heart rate and blood pressure levels Dinis and Martins, 2016). It has also been shown to significantly help those with depression or with fear (Barker and Pandurangi 2003).

This may explain the popularity of the cat and why there are approximately 7.5 million cats in the UK as of 2015/16 (according to the Pet Food Manufacturing Association).

The question is, however, are our cats as enamoured with us as we are with them? And in the words of Cher – can we tell if they love us?

Body Language

Cats communicate extensively with body language and there are clear signals of affection towards other cats that we can also see in their behaviour towards us. These can include:

  • Tail up

Cats often greet each other with their tail straight up as a sign of friendly intentions. A quivering tip can also be seen when cats are especially excited. It often is then followed by

  • Body rubbing

Where the cat will rub their body and occasionally wrap their tail around you, often your legs or rub their face against you. This both provides touch and deposits pheromones which are used a means of scent marking. It is these comforting pheromones that are synthetically replicated in Feliway and used to increased feelings of comfort within the home (Mills and Mills 2001).

  • Grooming

When cats groom each other this is known as allo-grooming and some cats also enjoying licking their owners as a means of showing affection – even if we are not so keen on it! It is believed that one of the reasons some cats enjoy being stroked is that this replicates the affectionate feelings generated when they are groomed by each other.

  • Eye blinks

In the animal kingdom direct eye contact is often considered threatening and so when cats are relaxed and calm this is often shown with narrowed eyes. When cats are happily relaxed they may slowly blink in the direction of their owners. This is often thought to be a cat’s version of a kiss.

  • Biscuit making or kneading

This process of flexing and relaxing their paws is used as a kitten to stimulate milk release when nursing and many cats continue with this even as adults when they are relaxed and very content.

  • Purring

Often thought to indicate a contented cat, purring may actually be more complicated. Some believe kittens use a purr to ask their mother to remain still when nursing and cats have also been found to purr even when in distress or discomfort. It may be therefore that a purr is not so much an indication of affection but a way of the cat trying to make sure that we continue doing continuing whatever is making it happy.

Here is a very cute video of Internet sensations Cole and Marmalade showing off some of these signs.

Is there any scientific evidence that cats ‘love us’?

As we cannot just ask them, to determine whether cats experience the same emotions as us, we have to examine their brain activity. By doing this we can see whether there is the same activity as seen within humans when they experience feelings of love or affection. This is done by measuring levels of oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine.

In a recent BBC programme called ‘Dogs vs. Cats’ and broadcast in 2016, Dr Paul Zak found that there was a measurable increase in oxytocin when cats played with their owners.

Oxytocin,  as Dr Zak explains, is “one of the chemical measures of love in mammals. Humans produce the hormone in our brains when we care about someone. For example, when we see our spouse or child the levels in our bloodstream typically rise by 40-60 per cent.”

Although this was a very small study and done within a new environment (where cats are likely to be less relaxed) it does suggest that cats do have some attachment to us. It would be fascinating to see what the results would be with a greater sample size and also how cats reacted within their own home territory. It might not prove they love us, but it does show that they are not completely indifferent which is a start. Friendly cats naturally tend to be more socially bonded to humans than unfriendly cats as well.

So what makes a friendly cat?

Genetics will have a huge part to play and we know that kittens from friendly fathers are more likely to be sociable (McCune, 1995). Early experiences and handling are also vital to ensure that kittens grow up being used to being in a domestic home environment and are comfortable with human touch and interaction (Robinson, 2013). Watch this space as there will be more information on this in future posts!

How do I get to interact with my cat more?

Studies have shown that interactions between cats and humans often last longer if they are initiated by the cat. Therefore if you want your cat to spend more time with you – you may be better not stroking them but rather initiating play activity and letting them initiate any affectionate cuddle time (Wedl et. al, 2011). Feeding your cat may enhance your relationship but it won’t be sufficient to maintain it alone (Turner, 2000)

References

  • Barker, S. B., & Pandurangi, K. A. (2003). Effects of animal-assisted therapy on patients’ anxiety, fear, and depression before ECT. Journal of ECT, 19, 38-44.
  • Dinis, F.A. and Martins, T.L.F., (2016). Does cat attachment have an effect on human health? A comparison between owners and volunteers. Pet Behaviour Science, (1), pp.1-12.
  • McCune, S., 1995. The impact of paternity and early socialisation on the development of cats’ behaviour to people and novel objects. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 45(1-2), pp.109-124.
  • Mills D.S., Mills C.B., (2001).  Evaluation of a novel method for delivering a synthetic analogue of feline facial pheromone to control urine spraying by cats.  Vet Record.  149: 197-199.
  • Robinson, I. ed., (2013). The Waltham book of human-animal interaction: Benefits and responsibilities of pet ownership. Elsevier.
  • Turner, D.C., (2000). The domestic cat: the biology of its behaviour. Cambridge University Press.
  • Wedl, M., Bauer, B., Gracey, D., Grabmayer, C., Spielauer, E., Day, J. and Kotrschal, K., (2011). Factors influencing the temporal patterns of dyadic behaviours and interactions between domestic cats and their owners. Behavioural processes, 86(1), pp.58-67.

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