If you own a cat, you've probably noticed her rubbing against your leg or snuggling up close to you on the couch. While dogs are often perceived of as being more friendly and affectionate than cats, felines can and do express love and emotion toward their human companions.
Cats, and most mammals, feel emotions, although those emotions may be experienced and expressed differently in different species. Some of the different emotions observed and studied in mammals, including cats, are fear, happiness, sadness, curiosity, anger, grief and anxiety. Love is difficult to study in animals who cannot tell us how they are feeling, but there is no reason to believe that, when a cat acts affectionate, he isn't feeling an emotion to go along with his behavior.
One of the ways scientists assess whether animals feel a particular emotion is by looking at brain activity and comparing it to humans. Cats have many of the same or similar brain structures as people, including the areas involved with emotions. For example, a cat's brain responds in similar ways to serotonin and dopamine, two hormones that are associated with human love and affection. Another way to compare cat affection with affection in other animals is to see if drugs or brain damage affect them in the same way. The antidepressant buspirone causes cats to become extremely affectionate toward their owners when used as a feline anti-anxiety medication, further supporting the idea that those brain areas associated with feline love, happiness and affection are similar to those in the human brain.
How Cats Show Affection
Even though cats may feel love and affection, they can't show their emotions with kisses and hugs the way humans do. Nor do they wag their tails, lick people or jump up on their favorite humans like dogs tend to. Instead, cats cuddle up on laps, rub their heads on those they love and vocalizing their affection. Petting your cat is a good way to respond to an emotive display because it reinforces the affectionate bond between you.
While your cat does show affection and express other emotions, beware of thinking that your feline companion feels exactly the same way you do. You and she are still two very different species, and you can easily mistake what she is feeling. For example, a cat may purr when contented and loving, but a purr can also be a sign of nervousness or fear. Try to learn as much as you can about cat behavior so you can decipher the meanings and emotions behind what she does, but also maintain a respect for feline nature and accept there are some things you just won't ever understand.
Bridget Coila specializes in health, nutrition, pregnancy, pet and parenting topics. Her articles have appeared in Oxygen, American Fitness and on various websites. Coila has a Bachelor of Science in cell and molecular biology from the University of Cincinnati and more than 10 years of medical research experience.