With Valentine’s Day upon us, we explore cats and their capacity to love. This, it seems, is no simple matter. Love is a complicated business.
It is one part rooted in biology and another part soaring into abstraction.Scientists and poets compete to understand it - a dynamic process, a powerful force with no units of measurement. And, of course, a great joy.
Particularly when earned from a species infamous for their independence. In the words of Charles Dickens: “What greater gift, than the love of a cat?”
How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count The Ways
The study of love in people is a popular subject. You may be familiar with the concept of The Five Love Languages1:
Words of affirmation
Acts of Service
While our kitties may not be able to write us a sonnet or help us out with a lift to the train station, many of them want to be near us; head butting and rubbing against us, and even bringing us gifts (whether we want them or not!)
Of course, trying to measure love in animals is difficult because besides being unable to explain to us exactly how sentimental they are, they're experts at modifying their behaviours to triggers so subtle we may not even be aware of them.
For example, cats have been shown to recognise our facial expressions and respond to them8; but we cannot assume that their reaction is triggered by empathy, it may be a learnt response according to how much our moods are associated with their chances of being cuddled or scolded. If you think that’s a bit cold, you’re not wrong, but it gets worse. Some scientists also believe that when cats comfort us when we are crying, it’s because they’re attracted to the fascinating scents provided by hormones in our tears4. Ouch!
One of the best-known studies concerned with cats and attachment was based on the Ainsworth Strange Situation test. It assessed the responses of cats in an unknown room when alone; with their owner; and with a stranger.5 Most cats showed more confidence to explore when their owner was present than in either of the other situations; and showed affection and playfulness to their owner but not the stranger. The conclusion of the study showed that cats showed very similar percentages of secure attachments to dogs and also babies.5 Purrrfect!
The results from another scientific assessment of love were less heartwarming. This small study was done through monitoring the levels of oxytocin in cats’ blood before and after interacting with their owners. Oxytocin is one of the “Love Hormones,” associated with bonding and trust. It is not by any means the molecular equivalent of love, but it is one component of the complex system of its physiology. The results showed that the blood levels of oxytocin in cats went up by 12% after spending 10 minutes playing with their owners.3 That sounds great right? Yes. Until you look a bit further and see that the levels of oxytocin in dogs after the same amount of time with their owners went up 57%.3 And that a 12% increase in humans could be associated with activities such as shaking hands with a mildly attractive stranger!9
It hurt my feelings too.
But then I thought about it more...
Maybe we should stop giving cats such a hard rap for not being more like us, and instead celebrate who they are. (Little bad-asses.) Our cats would probably never be the type to like our posts on Facebook, even if they had opposable thumbs. Because they’re cats. Individuals that are genetically nuanced to be solitary predators; sensory ninjas that happen to enjoy couches and kisses as well.
They are profoundly different to dogs. Dogs started as pack animals, part of a team from the very beginning; and since then they have been genetically engineered into “Man’s Best Friend”. They allowed us to manipulate their breeding and we did. They are profoundly loyal. They are terminally forgiving, sometimes to their own detriment. Among all the jobs we have given them since their domestication and their diversification into over 200 man-made breeds, specifically designed to chase anything from rats to lions to postmen; to sit on laps; to fetch any number of things; chief among their tasks is to adore us. And they do it well - bless their wagging tails. And so they should. It’s taken them approximately 30 000 years2 since they started eating our scraps to perfect the art of loving us, in a way that makes sense to us.
Cats are cats.
They didn’t start off in teams because that’s not how they roll. (Except lions. Lions are the team players of the cat world). They didn’t become domesticated until less than 10 000 years ago7 and even then, they did it the same way they do everything else – on their own terms. Cats self-domesticated themselves. Why did they do it? To follow rats. They were not beggars, they were hunters. We did not manage to really start manipulating their breeding until a mere 200 years ago.7 Their loyalty cannot be taken for granted and forgiveness must be fought for (just ask anyone who has ever had to take their cat to the vet!)
One species has evolved to please us, and the other is a semi-wild, fiercely independent creature who chooses to spend time with us. One way to look at it is that cats had a lot more choice from the very beginning and they still chose us!
If we want to explore how much our cats love us, perhaps we also need to look at how we define love.
Dogs are much more likely to get separation anxiety than cats,6 but is that any way to measure love? Buddhism promotes love without attachment. Being able cherish someone without being needy. To enjoy them without dependence. Maybe cats are a just a whole lot better at this than we are.
I don’t know. But as I write this, my cat, Gorbachev, is with me. He started off sitting behind me, just a warm touch and a rumbling purr; and then he nosed his way round, turned a circle and folded himself into my lap, his paws periodically stretching out and then closing in tight little fists into my leg. By any definition, it seems a lot like love.
Perhaps our error is not in the methods we use to gauge our cats’ feelings towards us; but in trying to scientifically measure something that is beyond quantification.
In the words of Winnie The Pooh, “You don’t spell love, you feel it.”
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Chapman,G. (1995). The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to your Chicago: Northfield.
Ghosh, P. (2015, May 21). DNA Hints At Earlier Dog Evolution. BBC News. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-32691843
Horton,H. (2016, Feb 1). It’s Finally Proven – Scientists Test Whether Cats Or Dogs Love Us More. The Telegraph. Retrieved from: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2016/03/12/its-finally-proven---scientists-test-whether-cats-or-dogs-love-u/
Krall, A. Do Cats React To Human Hormones? The Nest. Retrieved from: https://pets.thenest.com/cats-react-human-hormones-13080.html
McKinney, M. (2019, Oct 23). Cats Are Just As Bonded As Dogs To Their Owner, Study Says. DVM360. Retrieved from: https://www.dvm360.com/view/cats-are-just-bonded-dogs-their-owners-study-says
Plotnick, A. (2019, June 10). Separation Anxiety In Cats. Manhattan Cat Specialists. Retrieved from: https://www.manhattancats.com/blog/2019/june/separation-anxiety-in-cats/
Smith, C. (2017, June 19). Cats Domesticated Themselves, Ancient DNA Shows. National Geographic. Retrieved from: https://api.nationalgeographic.com/distribution/public/amp/news/2017/06/domesticated-cats-dna-genetics-pets-science
Wylie, R. (2015, Oct 14). Your Cat Can Pick Up On How You Are Feeling. BBC Earth. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20151015-your-cat-can-pick-up-on-how-you-are-feeling/
Zak, P. (2014, April 22). Dogs (And Cats) Can Love. The Atlantic. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/04/does-your-dog-or-cat-actually-love-you/360784/