Qualified Cat Behaviour Assistance
What emotions do cats experience?
When considering the word ‘emotions’ it is common for people to think about feelings. Being ‘emotional’ is about expressing your feelings – of sadness, joy, frustration, anger etc. When we consider emotions in the cat from a human perspective, and assume they experience the world in the same way we do, we misunderstand the species. Here is an extract from a clinical review on ‘Normal Feline Behaviour’ by John Bradshaw from the University of Bristol Veterinary School, published in the Journal of Feline Medicine Surgery in 2018 (DOI: 10.1177/1098612X18771203), where he describes the current understanding of feline cognition (the definition of cognition is the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses).
“Some inferences can be made about feline cognition based upon what we now know about dogs, since their brains are both constructed according to the carnivore pattern, and are therefore substantially different to our own. Relative to the size of their bodies, cats’ brains are less than half the size of ours, and much of the difference is due to our comparatively huge cerebral cortex, the ‘thinking’ part of our brains. Cats’ brains have relatively large areas devoted to olfaction, and also to balance (the cerebellum), as befits their lifestyle. In terms of behaviour, the structure of their brains suggests that cats almost certainly live much more in the present than we do, neither ruminating on the past nor planning for the future.
These cognitive differences also have consequences for cats’ emotional repertoires. Contrary to what many owners believe, cats are probably incapable of experiencing emotions such as guilt, pride and grief, all of which require a sense of self and/or a concept of past, present and future. (Cats do appear to grieve for missing feline or human companions, but this behaviour can be neatly explained by the lingering odour of the absentee, undetectable to us but all too real to the cat). Simpler emotions, what we might refer to as ‘gut feelings’, such as anger, affection, fear and anxiety, are generated in the limbic system, which is common to all mammals. Due to the differences between their brains and ours, cats may not experience these quite in the way we do, but it is difficult to explain cat behaviour without invoking the triggering of these simpler emotional states”.
Cats, like all other mammals are frequently monitoring their environments, evaluating them and adjusting their responses. How they respond is hugely influenced by the primal emotional systems that John Bradshaw is describing.
Studies in brain research, including the work of Jaak Panksepp, have identified distinct neurobiological systems that underpin individual emotional states – these are known as motivational-emotional systems, some of which relate to positive feelings and some to negative feelings.
When a cat is faced with a change to its environment, it will:
perceive such change through its various sensory systems – olfactory (smell), hearing, sight, etc.
make a mental judgement, for example, whether the change is likely to cause them harm or not
The outcome of that appraisal leads to activation of one or more of these distinct motivational-emotional systems and these lead to the cat behaving in a certain way and/or can influence the cat’s physiological state. The response (whether behavioural, physiological or both) is therefore known as an emotional response. Such an emotional response will influence how the cat perceives and processes the next thing it encounters in its environment, for example, a cat in a fearful mood is more likely to react fearfully to a potential threat. The same can also be said for temperament – a cat with a fearful temperament is more likely to develop fearful moods.
What determines what emotion is experienced is the appraisal the animal makes and the underlying sensitivity of the emotional systems. Both the appraisal and the underlying sensitivity of the emotional systems are influenced by genetic and experiential factors which are known as the animal’s temperament and by the animal’s health as well as the animal’s current mood.
Positive emotional systems
Motivates cats to move to places where they have more potential for finding and consuming/using resources, eg food, water and shelter. Behavioural manifestations of the desire-seeking system include predatory behaviour and object play.
Social play system
Motivates interaction with other cats, particularly in young kittens that play with each other. This motivation diminishes with age as cats become adults but there is considerable individual variation.
Motivates partner selection, courtship and mating, so absent in most pet cats and street and feral cats that have been neutered.
Motivates parental care and the maintenance of bonds with individual offspring. As the cat is not biologically social, the motivation to care reduces when a cat is not caring for young kittens. Some adult cats however, as reported by their owners, can demonstrate caring behaviour towards young kittens, even when neutered.
Negative emotional systems
This system is unique as it motivates the cat to maintain body integrity and functioning and also is a distinct sensation.
Motivates the kitten to survive and ensure they get the nurturing they need, for example young kittens are strongly motivated to cry when their mother is absent.
Motivates the cat to intensify behavioural responses when it is unable to obtain resources or retain control. The frustration system can be triggered in association with other systems when the cat is unable to react to other emotional motivations in an appropriate way.
Motivates the cat to manage threats to personal or resource security and preserve the comfort experienced by predictable access to essential resources. This is a survival strategy as it is more adaptive to experience anxiety (the anticipation of threat) and act accordingly to avoid the danger rather than to be attacked and harmed.
Can cats feel more than one emotion at a time?
It is entirely possible that a cat can feel more than one emotion at once. For example, a cat in a pen with no opportunities to hide may be motivated by both the anxiety-fear and the frustration system in response to the need to find a place to hide from perceived danger but failing to do so.