Cats have a reputation for being aloof, but anybody who’s owned cats for a long time will tell you that’s not true. This misconception stems from how cats show trust, affection and love to their owners: so how do they do it, and how can you show love back?
How do cats tell you that they love you? While it’s unclear whether cats feel the same kinds of love and affection that we do, they can trust their owners. Cats display trust through slow blinking, which is where the cat finds your gaze and blinks its eyelids slowly. They also allow you to show them affection, particularly on the belly and neck, which are sensitive areas (so only the trusted few are allowed to tickle there). You can show a cat that you love it by petting it affectionately and doing a slow blink back.
The guide below isn’t the longest or the most complicated. All it does is look at each of the ways cats say ‘I love you’ in more depth, from belly and chin scratches to slow blinks and spending time with you.
How Do Cats Say ‘I Love You’?
There are a few ways that cats show that they ‘love’ their owners.
A cat’s conception of the cat-person relationship is based entirely on trust, which makes sense when you look from your cat’s perspective. You are much bigger than your cat and your cat knows it. Your cat knows that if for whatever reason, you really wanted to, you could kill and eat them at any moment. That might come as a surprise to you, but that’s only because your cat can’t do the same to you!
As such, all of the ways that your cat might say ‘I love you’ relate to it showing trust in you. If you assess your cat’s behavior through that lens, everything becomes clear…
CAN Cats Love Their Owners?
First, a quick note. Cats almost certainly don’t feel love and affection in the same way that we do.
The reason for this is that cats are predators while we are omnivores. The species that housecats were bred from are largely solitary, living on their own except to come together to reproduce or fight. In select circumstances these cats can band together to take down big prey, but that’s the exception to the rule. They’ve never had to live in large groups. People, by contrast, have always been more social, have always lived in groups, and have better developed social signals and motivations than cats do.
In some ways, the ingredients for the recipe are there in a cat’s brain. Cats have the neurotransmitter dopamine like we do, and cortisol too. But what’s never been observed in cats is the same flooding of the brain with these chemicals as people have when we’re in love.
What cats can do, though, is learn to trust you. When a cat trusts you, it’s more likely to want to spend time with you; it’s more likely to sit in your lap and accept your affection; it’s more likely to accept when you have to do something like put it in a cat carrier. And at the same time, as an owner, you no doubt feel that your cats have at least some degree of affection for you. It’s not for anybody to say your cat doesn’t like you if you think it does!
Basic Trust: Allowing You Nearby…!
Cats become what’s called ‘socialized’ from an early age. That’s when the cat learns what people are like and whether to trust them. There’s a crucial period when a kitten is just weeks old in which it needs to be socialized, or it will grow up to distrust people; the cat’s natural state without an owner’s interference is to stay away from us!
This is something that not a lot of people recognize, but it’s an act of trust for a cat to even stay in the same room as you. A feral cat would get out of the room as fast as it could, or else back into a corner and get defensive/aggressive. The next step from there is for the cat to allow you to touch it and stroke it.
It would be a stretch to say that this is the cat showing you ‘love’. But it’s the foundation of how all cats interact with people. So if you get to this point, congratulations!
What Is Slow Blinking?
The most common way that cats show their respect/love is through slow blinking. Slow blinking is exactly what it sounds like. It’s where your cat looks at you and closes its eyes almost all the way. It may keep them closed, or open them up again over the course of a few seconds. It may do this repeatedly.
There are lots of circumstances in which you might notice this. They’re invariably when the cat is relaxed and sleepy… And no, that doesn’t mean that it’s closing its eyes because it’s falling asleep! You may see this behavior when your cat is on your lap, or in its bed with you nearby.
Why Does Slow Blinking Mean ‘I Love You’ To a Cat?
The purpose of this behavior is simply to show trust. When your cat closes its eyes, it’s defenseless against you. It knows that if you chose to, you could take the opportunity to reach out and hurt it or even kill it. But because it trusts you, it feels that it can close its eyes anyway; and by looking at you to get your attention and only then doing so, it’s trying to communicate this fact with you.
If you want to send your cat the same message, you can. Cats are intelligent and know where your eyes are, what you’re looking at, whether you’re blinking and so on. You can therefore do the exact same in return to make your cat feel even more secure with you. Follow these steps:
- Don’t look your cat straight in the eye. Cats interpret staring as threatening behavior, especially if your eyes are wide open. Instead, look just to the side of their head, e.g. at their whiskers.
- Keep your eyes slightly more shut than normal. Pretend that you’re sleepy and that your eyelids are ever so slightly closing. Again, you don’t want to show your cat the whites of your eyes, as big-wide-open-eyes are a threat signal.
- Slowly close your eyes. Close both eyes, not just one. You don’t have to close them all the way if you want to see how your cat reacts, but at least close them most of the way.
- Keep them closed for at least a second. You can reopen them soon after if you like, as slowly as you closed them. Or you can keep them closed for a while.
Sometimes, by doing this, you can make your cat blink at you! Cats clearly get the message when you do this back at them, and it helps you build your bond with your pet.
Cats Show Their Bellies to Show Love
This is another way cats show trust. Not all cats will roll on their backs and let their owners tickle their bellies, but lots do.
Again, the point of this is that the cat allows itself to be vulnerable. When your cat is on its back, it’s not in a position to defend itself; it would have to flip itself back onto its front to attack you back. A cat on its back with its belly in the air is much easier to attack than one that has its hackles raised, its claws out and its teeth bared. Your cat knows this, but it chooses to show you its belly anyway, because it knows ‘in its heart’ that you would never do that. But also, your cat’s belly is where all of its organs are, making it doubly vulnerable.
If you want to show some love back, it’s as easy as tickling your cat’s belly. This tells the cat that you recognize its gesture, and you’re happy to play into it, showing the cat that you won’t hurt it even if you get the chance.
Beware though. There are some cats that feel comfortable showing their belly, but not being tickled on the belly. Don’t get mad or upset: it’s just that your cat feels vulnerable. Show love back by tickling your cat elsewhere, or playing with it instead.
Neck & Chin Scritches
Neck and chin scritches are in the same ballpark as belly scritches. Your cat’s neck is another vulnerable spot; it’s where most predators grab a hold of their prey. That’s what cats themselves do when they hunt down birds or rodents: they bite them by the neck and break it.
As such, if your cat allows you to scratch its chin or neck, it’s acknowledging that. It knows that it’s vulnerable but it choose to trust you.
Why Isn’t My Cat Showing Me Love?!
So, you may have read through all of the above, and started thinking: Well, my cat doesn’t do that… Or that… Or that! So does my cat not love me?
All cats are different. Some cats are people cats, and others aren’t. Some prefer interacting with women over men, others men over women, and some crazy cats prefer kids to adults. Some might trust or even love their owners but still hate having their bellies scritched. In other words, just because your cat doesn’t display all or any of the behaviors above, doesn’t mean it hates you.
Part of this misconception comes from the fact that cats are less hands-on than other pets. Even affectionate cats don’t always want to be petted; the cats that love their owners the most don’t always want to sit in their laps. It’s easy as an owner to misinterpret this as dislike towards you, but that’s just not true. If you can:
- Pet your cat occasionally
- Sit with your cat without it immediately running away
- See that your cat isn’t always trying to escape your home
…Then your cat trusts you, even if it doesn’t tick every box in this guide.