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Do Our Cats Love Us Back?

Kitty Corner

We’ve all seen the pictures and the videos: cats with their dog pals, cats and their bird pals, and even cats cavorting with mice. Every day, millions of people upload loving pictures and videos displaying their bond with their cats. Despite it all, researchers are still trying to figure out whether or not our cats love us. 

There was even a spate of articles a few years back on the transmission of the toxoplasmosis parasitic disease from cat to human. It was implied that, as in lab mice, the disease could make infected humans more susceptible to the cat’s charms. In the most uncharitable of these articles, the authors implied that our love for our cats was merely a toxoplasmosis-induced fever dream. We had become mere human thralls to our feline overlords.

Our relationship with cats has always been a complex one. The cats’ history is long and storied. We know that the ancient Egyptians not only loved cats, but also worshipped them. We know there have been times when cats were associated with evil, as witches’ familiars, and as the cause of hardships and crop failures. They’ve been burned, tortured, and killed in response. Even today, black cats often languish in rescue centers because of an ancient superstitious connection to bad luck and evil. But in the modern era, for the most part, cats have found a new lease on the human heart. They’re virtually everywhere, pampered, admired, and treated like kids.

So why do so many people still question their love? I used to dismiss the studies and the people behind them out of hand, grumbling that rather than throwing away money on proving the obvious, they should simply find a handful of cat owners and ask them.

But instead, these studies persist. 

Cats Are Mysterious

Cats are complex creatures. There’s still so much we don’t really understand about them. While there are thousands of books and studies that try to unravel the mystery of their ways, most are merely providing educated guesses. 

Because many of the cat’s behaviors are inscrutable, it’s led to the propagation of countless untruths and assertions. Earlier today, I read a Facebook post on the healing power of the cat’s purr. Studies have already debunked the belief that cats can heal themselves more quickly due to a release of endorphins when they purr. But in this post, the author claimed that a purring cat sitting on its owner’s chest has healing properties. While we all know that the sound of a purring cat is both calming and pleasant, there doesn’t appear to be any proof that a cat’s purr results in quicker recovery times in either the cat or its human. 

I’m pretty sure there’s some serious wishful thinking going on here, but it typifies the sense of otherness that makes just about anything attributable to the cat seem plausible. While I’m not as familiar with dog myths, I’ve never read that a dog licking your face can cure acne or that a black dog crossing your path is bad luck. No, there are relatively fewer mysteries surrounding the dog. We seem to better understand them and often attribute this to the fact that they’ve been domesticated longer than cats, which makes dogs more responsive to the needs of their people. From my vantage point, how long the cat has been domesticated has little relevance. A cat is a cat and a dog is a dog. Ten thousand years from now, that will still be the case. We love them for who they are, not who they could be.

Researcher Bias

As a species, cats are not easy to study. Due to their cautious nature, the fact that they’re not pack animals (but can live in packs), and a wariness of strangers, creating a controlled environment is difficult. The way a cat behaves on its own turf with its trusted family can’t be replicated, so much of the valuable research with cats is done in the home, using the cat’s owner to collect the data for the researchers.

I don’t know the researchers who’ve done the many studies I’ve encountered over the years, but I’m pretty sure that most are not cat people. I suspect that a good number aren’t cat owners, either, and some percentage just don’t like cats. 

Maybe I’m showing my own biases here, but if they owned cats, there would be no reason for the study in the first place. They’d just know. Cats in these studies are sometimes described in unflattering terms. I’ve seen words like indifferent, solitary, independent, and aloof used to describe the cat’s nature in these reports. 

While this is sometimes true of cats that weren’t socialized as kittens, it’s patently false for well-socialized cats. I also hear these terms a lot from people who have never owned a cat. I get it, if your only frame of reference is the cat of a friend or family member that is not interested in you, or runs from you, then you could come away with a less than favorable impression.

Some cats just have no desire to meet strangers, especially people who don’t have any experience with cats and are uncomfortable or clumsy around them. I suspect this is where a lot of the negative connotations come from and the reason some researchers see them as opportunists rather than animals capable of love. 

In my experience, the amount of love a cat displays is in direct portion to the amount you bestow upon it. Some people, in their naiveté, misinterpret or miss altogether their cat’s subtle signs of love. Most cats are cautious by nature (we all know the exceptions) and don’t believe in love at first sight. With most cats, love grows. And over time, if you’re consistent, attentive, and loving, your cat’s love will become more and more obvious. You’ll see it, feel it, and luxuriate in it. It’s why I always tell people that I like kittens, but I love cats. And without a doubt, they love me back.

Clifford Brooks works as a documentation manager in the enterprise software security sector. In his spare time, he writes horror fiction, cat books, and blog posts. His most recent books, The Zen of Cat Walking and Toilet Train Your Cat, Plain and Simple, provide thorough information on training your cat. You can follow him on his cat walking adventures and share in the joy of cat ownership at CliffordBrooks.com.

Main article photo by: Chalabala / iStock