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Can Science Tell if Our Cats Love Us?

Photo credit: Maria Teneva via Unsplash.

Science writer Carys Matthews turns the question around: Do cats really hate us? Citing a 2015 study, she notes,

There is some truth in the accusations, as numerous studies have found evidence that cats (Felis catus) don’t love us back in the same way dogs do, and will make us work for their affections. They do, however, appear to like us at least a little.

In a 2015 study conducted for the BBC documentary “Cats v Dogs,” neuroscientists sampled the saliva of 10 cats and dogs and found oxytocin hormone levels increased in both cats and dogs after being stroked. However, the amount of oxytocin, a love hormone used in social bonds, was much higher in dogs, increasing on average by 57.2% compared with just 12% in cats.


In a Sense We All Know That

But there is a danger of reading it wrong. The dog needs people; he is a pack animal and cannot even develop properly in isolation. It’s a remarkable fact is that most dogs can adapt to living with humans rather than with other dogs, if accustomed from a young age. 

The cat, by contrast, appreciates the advantages of living with humans just as he might appreciate the company of other cats in a colony. But he is not a pack animal; he is adapted to a solitary life. Usually, he likes us but he doesn’t need us emotionally in the same way as a dog.

Recent studies have come up with some interesting findings in cat psychology, as Matthews notes. A 2019 study published in Current Biology identified several different attachment styles, ranging from more to less secure, concluding, “Our study provides evidence that this social flexibility extends to cross-species attachments, suggesting that, like dogs, cats are social generalists. Attachment to humans may represent a flexible adaptation of offspring-caretaker attachment that has facilitated success in anthropogenic environments.”

The authors have hit on something important. The basic relationship between a cat and a human friend is, seen from the cat’s perspective, that the human is mommy (the sex of the human is irrelevant here). After all, the cat was taken from his mommy at a young age and given to the human. Since then, the human fed and looked after him. If the cat ends up at a shelter later, looking for a home, he will hope to find another mommy. That’s usually pretty much the only type of relationship he knows.

So to ask whether he “loves” the human is to impose a way of thinking on his situation that only a human would consider. Let’s just say, he knows who his mommy is.

Aloofness Not That Common

A 2021 University of Lincoln survey of 4,000 cat owners found that “While many cats may be aloof, it seems that this is not as common as might be portrayed. The wider sociability of the cat and owner expectations may be significant, and the owner’s level of emotional investment in the cat and the cat’s sociability appear to be particularly important in discriminating what type of relationship they have together.” (

That famed aloofness may often simply be a response to the uncertainties of a cat’s life. He has no rational faculties by which to organize his understanding of the world, with the result that much of it is an utter blank and he can’t predict the directions from which possible threats will come. However, over time, many aloof cats begin to feel more secure simply because they are more used to their environment.

Another 2021 study out of Nottingham Trent University found, not surprisingly, that “providing the cat with choice and control is key to ensure they feel happy and comfortable during interactions. This includes gently offering a hand to the cat and letting it decide if it wants to interact or not, usually indicated by it rubbing against the person’s hand. Owners should allow the cat to move away if it chooses, and not be tempted to pick it up or follow it, as this takes away the cat’s sense of control.” Indeed. The cat has no more certainty about your behavior than you do about his. But he has a definite dislike of being held and confined; it reminds him too much of being prey.

It also helps to keep in mind that his perspective in life is generally about 6 inches (15 cm) off the floor, unless he jumps up on something, which is one reason why it is hard to prevent him from doing so.

But now, back to the question, do our cats hate us? Love us? In the human sense, neither because in humans, these emotions are mixed up with the indelible effects of human reason. Most cats are happy to share their lives with a friendly human and that is about as good as it gets.