We all know cats can be… fickle. Occasionally they’ll curl up in your lap and let you cuddle with them while they knead your leg, but as a general rule, cats are simply more aloof when it comes to affection than their canine counterparts.
There are always exceptions to the rule, of course, but most cats seem to tolerate affection more than thrive on it like dogs do. That’s what makes it so darn special when your favorite feline friend does appear to enjoy a little show of love and, even better, reward your love with some particularly verbal purring.
But here’s the rub. There’s a question we’re all secretly thinking but aren’t quite sure we want to know the answer to: Do cats actually like affection?
Over the last few years, reports of new research have surfaced suggesting cats are, well, just not that into you. Or me. Or any human, for that matter. “Owners invest a lot emotionally in the cat relationship,” said Daniel Mills, a veterinary researcher at the U.K.’s University of Lincoln. “That doesn’t mean that the cat’s investing in the same sort of emotional relationship.”
For the record, Mills is a total cat lover! You can’t accuse him of pandering to canine kind — his profile pic in the university’s staff directory proudly includes his own cat.
Still, experiments performed by Mills and his colleagues have consistently pointed toward the conclusion that cats don’t like us that much. Therefore, they’re probably just tolerating our displays of affection because it is beneficial to them (you know, the whole “don’t bite the hand that feeds” and all).
In a separate study performed in 2013 by researchers from the University of São Paulo, it was found that cats that tolerated affection from humans, such as being petted, experienced a surge in stress hormones after the fact.
Another study published in the Animal Cognition journal last July revealed that when researchers played voice recordings of a cat’s name being called — c’mon, your cat totally loves when you coo over him, right? — feline subjects were largely unresponsive.
Admittedly this type of research does not bode well for those pet owners who live for a good kitty cuddle at the end of a long day. So in the spirit of full disclosure, we decided to reach out to another veterinarian to get their take on the matter.
“The theory is that cats don’t become as attached or dependent on their owners as dogs do. They also don’t really miss their humans when they are not around,” Hawaii-based veterinarian Destini R. Holloway, DVM, of PetCoach told us.
Ouch, that hurts a little, huh? But wait, there could be good news for snuggly cat lovers yet.
“Although cats do like affection,” Holloway continued, “especially rubbing on the side of their belly (in some cats). Each cat is different, and the level of affection they want varies. However, it has to be viewed as a kind of ‘selfish act,’ for lack of a better word, when cats want affection from their owners. They rarely will do things for our pleasure, but instead they seek actions that pleasure themselves instead.”
However, holistic cat behaviorist and award-winning writer-photographer Layla Morgan Wilde of CatWisdom101 counters the idea that cats are totally opportunistic, stressing that the key is early connection.
“Most cats seek affection as part of the human-animal bond. They demonstrate it in many ways, from rubbing against us, wanting to be petted, sitting and purring in a lap, head-butting (bunting), kissing, licking, paw-patting and slow blinking. Some cats are more affectionate than others,” she told SheKnows.
“The key point is being socialized and handled by humans from an early age, starting between 2 [and] 8 weeks and up to 16 weeks,” Wilde continued. “A cat that is not socialized early will not be as affectionate and [will be] more wary. They tend to resist being picked up and aren’t lap sitters.”
So hey, it’s not all bad news — the good news is that, depending on your cat’s specific tastes, you might not be causing his stress levels to spike every time you bring him close for a cuddle or chin scratch. Yay for not freaking out your beloved feline!
Having said that, the not-so-good news is obviously that if affection does seem satisfying, your cat may not enjoy said affection for the reasons you’d like to think they do. Like, oh, you know, because they adore you with ever fiber of their little kitty being.
Still, don’t let that keep you from showing your cat affection if he or she does seem to enjoy it. Cats can be fickle, but you know your cat better than anyone and should be able to tell when they’re not pleased with something.
Just remember the cardinal rules of feline affection moving forward: Pay attention to kitty cues, approach the belly with caution, and hold onto the happy belief that your cat enjoys a good cuddle sesh for the same sweet reasons you do.