Friday, December 30, 2016

I Love My Cats. Do They Love Me?

Chili, the angel.
Our cat Chili is an angel. All she requires is regular food and water, a little daily string chasing, a warm lap to curl up in every time she gets a chance, and a hefty amount of independence.

Lemmon, on the other hand, is a whiny pest. She follows us around, mewling and trilling and stretching up to try to turn the doorknobs of doors she wants us to open. When I open the pantry for any reason, she runs across the house hoping to be fed. She stations herself in the path where she knows I will walk next, desperate even for the attention of being kicked accidentally. I can never feed her enough food or play with her for a long enough period of time to satisfy her insatiable desires.

Lemmon, in a calm moment.
Or so it used to be. Although I love her desperately even at her whiniest, I was concerned that she wasn’t behaving in a healthy way. I did quite a bit of reading online about needy and demanding cats and finally happened upon an article stating that focused attention for a few minutes a day could turn these behaviors around. The author wrote of the importance of holding and petting a needy/whiny cat like Lemmon, looking in her eyes, and telling her how much I love her, repeating her name over and over again. Believe it or not, it works! At first it was hard for her to get used to being held like a baby, and she seemed to feel a bit strange about all the eye contact (as cats do). But now she settles right in and blinks at me happily as I repeat her name and coo at her. Sometimes she reaches her paws up towards my face, and a couple of times she has even bitten or licked me softly on my nose and cheeks. Five or ten minutes of this special time calms her down for a long time; a couple of sessions usually last the whole day.

Recently my husband and I watched The Lion in Your Living Room, a Netflix documentary about cats and how, even after millennia of domestication, they retain their wild behaviors. It was fascinating. But the documentary didn’t cover the emotional lives of cats, didn’t seek to explain moments like my special times with Lemmon. Is her growing calmness in my arms simply a reliving of her days as a kitten, turning instinctively to her mother for food and warmth and security? Or do we share an emotional relationship that exists beyond instinct?

Scholars in Animal Studies are currently studying this question: do animals experience emotions and, if so, what is the nature of those emotions? The field bifurcates: domesticated animals whose lives are wrapped up with those of humans may or may not have an emotional life different from that of free-ranging animals. The problem is that scientists cannot ask animals to explain their emotions, so they must infer them from their behaviors. (Of course, just because humans can explain their emotions doesn’t mean we fully understand those either!) Moments of play, courtship, and sharing of food suggest that animals are experiencing such emotion as joy, love, and care, respectively. The behaviors of hanging onto a dead relative or mate with a dejected air - which has been documented in many species of mammals and birds - suggest grief. The next question is how long these “emotions” last. Can animals be said to have real emotions if they are fleeting, unlike humans, who can remember and dwell on emotions such as grief for years?

There are also promising directions in research involving brain imaging, showing what areas of the brain light up when animals see other animals or humans or food or toys. And physical measurements can be taken: heart rate, eye movements, and so on. But then there is the problem of interpretation, as in studies of the human brain: explaining what is happening is much easier than figuring out why.

I think about these questions as I hold my little Lemmon. I’m glad we’re trying to answer them even though I’m not convinced we’ll ever really know the nature of animal emotions. Some scholars argue quite convincingly that humans are simply projecting our own emotions onto those animal behaviors. But it’s amazing enough to me to me that two such very different creatures as Lemmon and I can snuggle, let everything else go, look each other in the eye, and simply feel good in each other’s company. Isn’t that already pretty remarkable? And it sure feels like love to me.


  1. My husband just read the book The Lion in the Living Room, and we have since been discussing the emotional lives of our cats. As a result, I recommitted to loving my cats on their own KITTY terms, not my own HUMAN terms. This last consists primarily of potentially infantalizing petting and baby talk. And so, I need to admit that Mookie and Jackson want some independence (outdoors), while Holly needs a lot more active playtime with me so as to stimulate her unbelievably sharp mind. My "job" as pet steward is to foster the emotional attachment that my cats feel toward me by sensing what they want as individuals, just like you with Lemmon. But, alas, I must also accept that emotional reciprocity need not ALWAYS be part of this relationship. I must love them without conditions.

  2. Hmmm ... good thoughts. I wonder about this overpetting, too, and will think more about how to let them be cats. I think what Lemmon would like best is for me to release ten mice into the basement every morning and just let her at 'em! :-)

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