Are Cats Able to Love?

Friendship between human and cat. Paws are on the hand.

These two clearly like each other a lot. But is it love?

Cats purr when we stroke them. They snuggle up to us or rub themselves on our feet. We interpret this as a sign of affection. But are cats able to love? A study on attachment behaviour between cats and humans offers interesting insights.

Animals and feelings: Are cats able to love?

For many centuries, animals in the western world were considered things that were denied any feelings. Even their ability to feel pain was doubted. The philosopher René Descartes (1595-1659) even declared animals to be machines that could be used for all kinds of experiments without anaesthesia.

Thankfully things have now moved on. From around the middle of the 19th century, the realisation began to take hold that animals are also sentient beings and should not be tortured.

In today's science, there is broad agreement that animals are very much capable of feeling both pain and emotions such as fear or joy. However, the current state of research is still unclear regarding feelings like grief or love.

What is love?

Many intelligent people have racked their brains on the question of what love actually is. In simple terms, it is a feeling of deep affection and esteem. It doesn't have to be reciprocal. Anyone who has ever been unlucky in love will know what this means.

The following definition of love is found on the website of the scientific magazine 'Quarks':

“In scientific and entirely unromantic terms, love is a feeling of affection. There are different types of love depending on personal relationships – such as between lovers or parents and their children.”

Woman knit in front of the fireplace with her exhausted kitten sleeping in her lap
It is a sign of affection if a cat sleeps snuggled up to you.

Proven by studies: Cats have feelings for their owners

Cats are considered independent animals. They are said to be more attached to their home than to people. But is that really true?

A study by Oregon State University in Corvallis showed that cats have a closer bond with their owners than is generally acknowledged.

The experiment was set up in a similar way to those researching the bond between parents and their children. However, it focused on young cats between three and eight months of age and their owners.

For the experiment, kittens and cat owners were placed together in an unfamiliar room observed by cameras. They could both play together and the cat was able to explore its new surroundings. After two minutes, the owner left the room and the kitten was left alone. They came back two minutes later.

Similar attachment behaviour to children

Most kittens became visibly distressed when alone and meowed a lot. But as soon as their owner came back, they calmed down again. They stopped meowing and explored the room again.

The ability to calm down again indicates a secure attachment. 64.3% of the observed kittens showed a secure attachment to their owner.

Cats with an insecure attachment (37.5%) remained stressed even after their owner's return. They either clung to their owner, showed a lack of interest or switched between making contact and turning away.

These figures are strikingly similar to those found in numerous attachment experiments with children: On average 65% of children showed a secure attachment and 35% insecure.

Conclusion: Are cats able to love?

The study from the US shows very clearly that cats definitely feel something for their owners. They feel safe in their proximity even in an unfamiliar environment.

Does that mean that cats are able to love? It remains to be seen whether this type of attachment can definitely be called love. Perhaps affection is a better word for a successful relationship between a cat and its owner. However, it always depends on the definition too.

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