Ask a Vet: Do Cats Experience Emotions?


There are lots of things I love in this world, and near the top of the list is the holiday double issue of The Economist. The issue is filled with essays by the magazine’s correspondents. They choose topics that are often esoteric and write about them in depth. Every one of the essays that I have read for the past decade has been fascinating.

When the 2015 holiday issue arrived I eagerly grabbed it. I usually read the essays in order, but one jumped out at me and insisted to be read first. How could I resist an essay titled “Animal Minds”?

The teaser of the essay resonated deeply with me: “The inner lives of animals are hard to study. But there is evidence that they may be a lot richer than science once thought.”

The word richer is what moved me, because I have always believed that cats have rich emotional lives. I believe that their emotions are far more developed and nuanced than most people think. I believe cats are more intelligent than most people think. I believe that they are intelligent in ways that humans cannot even comprehend. The more I work with them, the more I believe these things.

Photo of Dr. Eric Barchas by Liz Acosta
Photo of Dr. Eric Barchas by Liz Acosta

As a man of science, my beliefs have put me a bit outside of the mainstream. But the mainstream is evolving in my direction. Here is a quote from the essay:

Charles Darwin thought the mental capacities of animals and people differed only in degree, not kind … But Darwin’s attitude to animals — easily shared by people in everyday contact with dogs, horses, even mice — ran contrary to a long tradition in European thought which held that animals had no minds at all.

I will grant the author the benefit of the doubt and ignore the fact that he or she did not include cats among dogs, horses, and mice.

The western tradition has long held that animals are thoughtless, emotionless automatons that feel nothing and respond to environmental stimuli much like modern day robots or computers. This was first based on religion. Only humans, after all, were made in God’s image. And only humans, therefore, could experience emotions and feelings. Animals were created simply for humans to use and exploit.

This is not a cat. Robot by Shutterstock

Scientists and religionists often are at odds, so how did they come to view animal intelligence and emotions similarly? Scientists rely on evidence. In general, things are assumed not to be true unless they can be proven true. There is no way, at least with current technology (more on that later), to know what a cat is thinking. One cannot run a controlled, double blinded study to determine whether cats experience anger, jealousy, fear, or happiness. So are those of us who believe that cats have emotions merely succumbing to anthropomorphic intellectual laziness? I don’t think so.

Reliance on evidence sometimes has its limits; this is especially true when considering the obvious. For instance, to my knowledge no researcher ever has run a controlled, double blinded study to confirm that parachutes improve survival rates among people who jump out of airplanes. Perhaps some of those who doubt that cats experience emotions would like to volunteer for such a study?

Cats are mammals with extremely highly developed nervous systems. They diverged from humans in their evolution just a few blinks of the eye ago (in evolutionary terms). In most ways they are much more like humans than they are different from us.

I have seen feline emotions in action firsthand on countless occasions. Just as someone who has a bad day at the office might take it out on their spouse at home after work, cats who are angered by an unruly toddler may attack another cat in the house. There is no doubt that cats experience anger, and their facial expressions in anger bear a striking resemblance to ours. If cats’ looks could kill, I (and every veterinarian on Earth) would be dead many times over. Similarly, the beatific facial expressions of a cat in bliss leave no doubt that cats experience pleasure and happiness.

Behold: bliss. A man connects with a cat by Shutterstock

There also is no doubt that cats experience psychological stress. Although there is nothing about most cats’ lives that I would find stressful, it is clear that cat’s emotional lives are very rich, and it is clear that many things cause them stress. Stress-triggered medical problems are common when owners leave town. Such problems also peak around the holidays. Over Christmas weekend my clinic never had fewer than two cats hospitalized for urinary obstructions.

As the essay points out, science is catching up with cat lovers’ conventional wisdom. New neuroimaging techniques may make it possible to assess thought processes in animals. Functional magnetic imaging has already made inroads in this matter. Investigators are coming up with clever new ways to investigate animal intelligence and emotion.

Over the past 40 years, scientific beliefs have trended steadily towards the notion that animals are sentient beings, and away from the idea that they are mere automatons. I have no doubt that future studies will continue this trend towards belief in the obvious.

Read more on cats and health:

Got a question for Dr. Barchas? Ask our vet in the comments below and your topic might be featured in an upcoming column. (Note that if you have an emergency situation, please see your own vet immediately!)

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