Cats are the most popular pet in the U.S., outnumbering dogs by about 10 million animals. But that doesn't mean cats have shed their reputation as distant and mysterious. Dogs, in comparison, remain open and sociable, and they even show the same signs of chemical romance. Like humans, happy dogs receive squirts of oxytocin -- the so-called "love hormone" -- in their brains as they romp with friendly individuals, a recent study shows. But do cats get the warm fuzzies too? Or, as other research indicates, are they truly anxious and avoidant creatures?
"I'm convinced that cats can feel affection," says John Bradshaw, the author of the book Cat Sense and an expert at the University of Bristol on animal-human relationships, in an email. "The simplest way to explain how they form attachments to other members of their own species -- mothers to their kittens is the most obvious example -- is to assume that they are motivated by feelings of affection."
Biologists don't know if cat brains release oxytocin -- but that's only because it hasn't been studied in cats yet. (It's simply more convenient for researchers to study dogs, according to Bradshaw.) But cats, like all mammals, "certainly possess the neural machinery" to show affection, he says.
The neural machinery may be similar among mammals, but humans haven't bred cats to act the same way as dogs. Humans have kept pet cats for about 5,000 years, whereas estimates for dog domestication date as far back as 32,000 years ago. Given that extra time, dogs "may have been heavily selected to ‘show' behaviors that we think are empathic," Mikel Delgado, an animal cognition expert, tells The Dodo. And simply because dogs can mimic "human emotional behaviors," she says, "I don't think we can ‘know' that dogs love us."
That's why she believes studies that compare the affections of cats and dogs are flawed. Reports that indicate cats are detached or inattentive but dogs are friendly, Delgado points out, take place outside the home, in environments much more stressful for cats.
And although pet owners can't look to studies of brain chemicals to learn about feline affection, they can rely on something easier to observe: cat behavior, from rubbing to blinking to licking.
As Bradshaw writes in the Washington Post, many cat behaviors are linked to affection, but an upright tail is the key:
While touch is very important, the upright tail is probably the clearest way cats show their affection for us. A cat approaching its owner with a raised tail will often rub on its owner's legs. The form that the rub takes seems to vary from cat to cat: Some rub just with the side of their head, others rub down their flank, some make contact with their tail. Many walk past without making any contact or perform their rubs on an object nearby.