Do Cats Have Emotional Bonds with People?

Research into cat emotions has produced interesting results.

picture of man and cats
Do these cats look like solitary, aloof animals?. Franny Syufy

While it is true that cats aren't "pack animals" as dogs are, they do establish "partnerships," often at an early age, both with other cats and with their humans. Incidentally, this has nothing to do with anthropomorphizing cats; they bond in a different way than humans, but they definitely bond.

While some experts state emphatically that cats are independent, aloof, and only come around humans to satisfy their physical needs, there is plenty of anecdotal and scientific evidence to the contrary.

Anecdotal Evidence of Cat Emotions and Bonding

If you're a cat lover (or even a person who has been around cats) you've almost certainly seen evidence of cats' emotions -- both positive and negative. Here are some common scenes you've probably witnessed:

  • Two older kittens wait outside the bathroom door while their human is inside. When their cat dad emerges they neither run into the bathroom to see what's inside nor to their food dish, hoping to be fed. Instead, they follow him to his computer desk, rubbing and purring all the while. Obviously, they missed his company and waited for companionable reasons.
  • A veterinary clinic "greet cat" hears a woman crying at the reception desk, because she has just had a longtime companion cat euthanized. The cat jumps up on the desk next to the woman, pats her face with its paws, and then "kisses" away the woman's tears. Does the cat perform these acts merely to taste the salt of the tears?  
  • A man is awakened in the morning with his cat giving him "head bumps." Does the cat immediately run to the food dish, meowing for breakfast? No, he settles down next to his human for a morning catnap.
  • A cat walks into a room occupied by several humans and jumps on the lap of a woman who is mourning a loss. It it because people who are sad have higher body heat, and the cat is simply seeking out a warm place to lie? Or is it that the cat can instinctively spot a human in emotional distress? Cats are used more and more for therapy in nursing homes for this unique ability.

    Scientific Evidence of Cat Emotions and Bonding

    Beyond anecdotes, scientific research suggests that:

    • Cats absolutely have a wide range of emotions. Says Dr. Joanne Righetti of the Purina website: "Emotions give cats the impulse to act in response to an event or situation. For example, the negative emotion of fear may cause cats to run and hide, or the positive emotion of happiness may cause cats to jump up on your lap for an affectionate cuddle."
    • Cats are capable of reading human facial expressions -- and choose to do so. Describing a study at Oakland University, Robin Wylie of the BBC website writes: "When faced with a smiling owner, the cats were significantly more likely to perform "positive" behaviors such as purring, rubbing or sitting on their owner's lap. They also seemed to want to spend more time close to their owner when they were smiling than when the owner was frowning."
    • Cats interact with humans in ways that reflect the kitten/parent relationship.

    There is no denying that cats can be manipulative, and that, at times, their gestures of affection are designed to bring food or treats their way.

    They are much like humans in that respect. But at the same time, let's not ignore their emotional needs. They have those needs, the same as you. The feline-human bond is a powerful force, not to be discounted by us mere humans.

    G.A. Bradshaw, Ph.D. notes on the Psychology Today blog

    Cats possess as many emotions and feel as deeply as we do. The only real difference is that individuals and species, like different human cultures, express their feelings in different ways. No one would argue that someone from the cool lands of Finland feels any less than someone from colorful Italy. Cats, dogs, humans-even fish-need as much love, care, and concern as we desire for ourselves.