Do Cats Have Feelings?

What's going on in that cute little head? 🐱🧐

cat looking happy and confused/surprised

Most cat parents are pretty sure their cats have feelings. When your cat greets you by rubbing against your legs and purring — or greets a stranger by hissing — it’s pretty obvious she’s feeling something.

But what does science say about cats’ emotions? And are their feelings the same as ours?

The Dodo spoke to Dr. Stefanie Schwartz, a board-certified specialist in veterinary behavior, to find out more about how cats experience feelings.

What emotions do cats feel?

Cats don’t exactly have a reputation for being open and friendly, but don’t be fooled by appearances.

“Cats are as social a species as dogs are,” Dr. Schwartz told The Dodo. “They may be more selective in certain circumstances.”

In other words, cats have feelings, but they’re also good at hiding them. Part of this may be because our pet cats’ ancestors were both predators and prey in the wild — and prey animals tend to be pretty secretive about how they’re feeling.

While cats may not be as ready to share their emotions with you as a happy-go-lucky golden retriever, cats experience all the basic emotions that we do, such as fear, anger, happiness and sadness.

“Cats have very similar emotional brains called the limbic system,” Dr. Schwartz said. “We share many types of emotions, including aggression, anxiety, depression, compulsive disorders and impulse control. They feel protective over their loved ones, defend their territories and don’t like to share stuff they really love, just like we do.”

(And yes, that means your cat can love you.)

How cats feel

Pet parents love to personify their pets, but we can’t assume that cats’ feelings are exactly like human emotions.

“[Cats] have no language. So when we are inside our heads, we use language to sort through what is happening around us,” Dr. Schwartz said. “It's primarily translated into rational thought by language, but because there's no language in other species, their thought processes cannot be as identifiable to them as they are to us.”

So while cats may experience some of the same emotions as people, like happiness, we don’t know for sure that they are feeling those emotions in the same way we are.

How can you tell what a cat is feeling?

While you may never know exactly what your cat is thinking, you can tell a lot about her emotions by paying attention to her body language.

Despite their reputation, Dr. Schwartz said, cats are actually even better at expressing their feelings than dogs are.

“The cat has a more plastic face than dogs do, so they have a wider ability to express themselves nonverbally — by shifting their ears and eyes and whiskers and mouth and muscle tension in their face — compared to dogs,” Dr. Schwartz said. “And it's not a conscious change; it's just part of the emotional response.”

In other words, if you pay close attention, you can actually read your cat’s feelings just by looking at her face!

Of course, cats also have a wide variety of body language cues to show what they’re feeling. Many of these are expressed through her tail, eyes, whiskers and back. Some emotions to look for are:

  • Happy — Your cat will hold her tail up and her ears forward (and sometimes purr).
  • Angry or scared — Your cat will arch her back, flatten her ears and keep her tail lowered (and sometimes hiss).
  • Relaxed — Your cat will stretch out her body.
  • Nervous — Your cat will freeze and make herself small.

If you have a cat, it’s probably already pretty obvious that she has feelings when she’s rubbing against your legs or playing with her toys. But if you want to be an expert at reading your cat’s body language, keep an eye out for these signs and you’ll be in tune with your cat’s emotions in no time.