Ask a Behaviorist
Share this image

Ask a Behaviorist: How Do Cats Show Affection to People?

It's a myth that cats are aloof and unemotional; they show people affection using a combination of body language, postures, and vocalizations.

Marilyn Krieger  |  Dec 5th 2014


Cat kisses, grooming, tail fluffs, chirps and mews — these are a few of the sweet ways cats express affection and love to the people they feel close to.

Because some these signals are subtle, they are often misinterpreted and sometimes overlooked. Typically, kitties do not demonstrate their warm feelings toward people in loud, boisterous ways. They don’t wag their tails or shower their loved ones with sloppy kisses like some dogs do. Instead, they whisper their affections.

Here are some ways cats show their favorite people affection:

Eyes convey love

It is a pretty good indicator that your cat trusts and enjoys your company when she looks at you with half-closed eyes while slowly blinking. These special eye blinks are called cat kisses and are reciprocal. You can tell your cat you love her too by giving her cat kisses. They convey relaxation, contentment, affection, and trust; they help build and strengthen your relationship with her. She may respond with more kitty love blinks.

Tails never lie

Become a tail watcher. Tails are emotional barometers, accurately conveying emotions through how they are held and positioned, and the degrees of fur puffiness. When combined with body language and other indicators, they communicate a gamut of emotions from fear and aggression to affection and happiness. Whereas most people readily recognize signs of fear and aggression, they are not as aware when tails signal affection and happiness.

Cats often show their emotional attachments through tail placements. Connection is demonstrated by twining tails around the legs and arms of their favored buddies. Sometimes kitties express warm feelings as they relax next to their people while physically touching or resting their tails on them. Although I try not to anthropomorphize, the sweet behavior reminds me of holding hands with a best friend.

In addition to tail wrapping and touching, kitties express happiness and warm feelings by fluffing out the base of their tails while subtly quivering them. Simultaneously they hold their tails upright with a slight curve at the top. This behavior is sometimes called the happy tail dance. Usually it is accompanied by an endearing kitty love blink.

Cheek rubs communicate trust

One friendly way cats greet those they trust and feel safe with is by rubbing their cheeks on them. Cheek rubs are also invitations for socializing. Kitties have scent glands on their cheeks that produce pheromones. In addition to showing their favorite people trust and affection, felines mark ownership through the behavior and mingle their scents with those they are attached to.

With cats you don’t know, you can encourage socialization by extending your index finger toward the cat at about her nose level. It doesn’t matter whether she is a few feet away or across the street. If she wants to say hello, she’ll approach your finger and touch it with her nose and then turn her head until your finger is on her cheek. If she trusts you, she will rub your hand with her cheek, indicating that she is open to socializing. This may be the beginning of a beautiful friendship!

Head bunting cements relationships

Does your cat bop you with her head? She is demonstrating affection while marking you and mingling her scent with yours. This is a social behavior that does double duty. In addition to showing trust and friendship, head bunting proclaims ownership. Scent that is produced from glands located on your kitty’s head is transferred on you when she butts you with her head.

Language can convey love

Chirrs, chirps, purrs, and mews often communicate endearments and trust. Although mom cats communicate reassurance to their kittens through chirrs and chortles, these sweet sounds are often reserved for special people whom cats feel close to. Endearing emotions are also expressed through other vocalizations such as special meows and mews — some are soft and kitten-like, while others are louder.

Purring can also indicate that your kitty is feeling secure, safe, and reassured around you. Her purrs may show affection, especially when she accompanies them with kitty kisses and other expressive endearments such as touching you with a paw or tail.

Grooming is a social tool

Cats who feel connected and close to each other will mutually groom (allogrooming). The behavior helps them relax, shows trust, and builds a community scent — important for recognizing family members and buddies. People are not exempt — grooming isn’t reserved just for those of the same species. Cats will sometimes lick their human friends, displaying affection while mingling their scents.

Hanging out says “I like you”

Cats like being around those they feel an affinity for. Your special kitty might be relaxing near you or napping on your lap. She might position herself so that she touches you — her back may be against your leg or she reaches out and pats you with a paw. Even if your cat isn’t a lap sitter, she may still demonstrate she feels connected to you by hanging out nearby.

Some kitties follow their people around the house. Food isn’t part of the equation — they trail their humans because they like being with them. Some tag along, following those they feel connected to from room to room.

Cats are very good communicators, using a combination of body language, postures, and vocalizations to express their feelings. Although they’re subtle and at times complex, they have a variety of ways of showing affection and trust to the people they are attached to.

Please follow Marilyn on Facebook!

Do you have a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian. Marilyn can also help you resolve cat behavior challenges through a consultation.

Marilyn, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC, solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site, Skype and phone consultations. She uses force free methods that include environmental changes, management, clicker training and other behavior modification techniques.

She is also an author. Her award-winning book Naughty No More! focuses on solving cat behavior problems through clicker training and other force-free methods. Marilyn is big on educationÔÇöshe feels it is important for cat parents to know the reasons behind their cat’s behaviors. She is a frequent guest on television and radio, answering cat behavior questions and helping people understand their cats.

Get Catster in Your Inbox!

Stay informed! Get tips and exclusive deals.

May We Also Recommend

Our Most-Commented Stories