Pets and Emotions

Our house is pretty small and right now we have eight cats. We are constantly filling food bowls and cleaning litter boxes.

Back on Cinco de Mayo, my sweet little siamese kitty had five kittens. When they reached eight weeks, we started looking for homes for them with very little luck. One kitten went to a friend while the other four remained at our house. I’ve contacted local no-kill shelters and they are all full. 

The kittens have become a part of our family. We’ve named them. My six-year-old has handled them since birth so they are super friendly. They barely look like kittens anymore and every day we grow more attached. 

We have four other adult cats including the mother.

I really don’t know what we’re going to do but that’s not why I’m writing this post.

How much do you think pets understand our emotions? 

The past few months have been really difficult. I’ve been dealing with ups and downs in my recovery as well as some family drama. I seem to have formed a connection with one particular kitten. It’s like he knows when I’m upset or not feeling well and he comes and cuddles with me – sometimes for long periods of time. He really calms me down and I think it’s really interesting. I really want to keep him.

He’s even laying next to me as I write this.

How much does my kitten really understand? I know some people have emotional support animals and I can see how that would be beneficial. 

I’d love to read some pet stories. Do you have a special connection with your pet? How much do you think they understand about your emotions?


  1. Katydid says

    Cats, dogs, and people vary. Some cats are very attuned to people, very emotionally intelligent. That’s amazing if that’s one of your cats!

    I had a dog who I swore could read my mind. Loved him so much. He had a long, happily life and we had many adventures together.

    Ohio has a spay and neuter program for low-cost surgeries:

  2. says

    How much do you think pets understand our emotions?

    At least as well as human children.

    After all, we are extremely important to them. That may mean some of them “love” us and some may “fear” us. I always wondered about my horse, P-nut, who was often extremely friendly-seeming but then would amuse himself by trying to kill me. It is possible that the big goof simply did not understand. He definitely seemed (or pretended to be) puzzled by my reactions to a fearsome draft horse buck transitioning into a canter, or rubbing me off on a convenient oak tree. It’s hard to understand how non-humans may think because, for example, I’ve seen horses kick eachother and it may be that when I punched P-nut in the face, he thought I was being cute, or maybe “I wonder if the human is trying to communicate with me…?”

    I am fairly sure that some non-humans focus almost entirely on us, for we are the source of their food, comfort, warmth, and sleeping arrangements. Is that “love” or “fear of retaliation”? I don’t know.

    I remember one time when Jake, my 150-lb shiloh shepherd, did not like a child at the Tractor Supply store tugging on his ears and gently captured his wrist with his teeth. It was not a threatening gesture, it was a gentle way of immobilizing the ear-tugging hand. The kids’ parents freaked out, naturally, and Jake was never bothered to go to the Tractor Supply store again. I remember the incident because I take it as a clear attempt to communicate. And, anyone who has had a dog knows that dogs communicate. They have various growls and whines and woots that they make and they expect us to try to understand, the same way we expect them to try to understand our mouth-noises.

    And, understand, they do. True story: I was speaking at a conference in Cavtat, near Dubrovnik, in 2009, and the talk after mine was given in German so I quietly sneaked out for a walk. What a beautiful town! And it was a gorgeous day. I found myself at a little cafe by the harbor enjoying a pizza and some red wine. Then a fellow came walking by with a gloriously handsome Bearnese Shepherd. (I remember nothing about what the human looked like) – I made mouth mooches at the dog, who came over and sat looking at me with his head cocked, just out of reach. I told the dog how handsome he was and the dog looked more attentive but confused. Then, the fellow came over and said, “dog not speak English” and said something to dog in Croatian(?) and the dog came over with his ears up and tail wagging. Fascinating. Such a fine fellow!

    I have encountered idiotic humans who say that dogs and horses and cats have no “emotions” that it’s all operant conditioning. I tell them that my dogs would have agreed that he has no emotions and is remarkably insensitive to the world around him. A dog can nose-locate pizza in a sports stadium, and convince its human to take it over there. Most humans couldn’t pour piss out of a boot if the instructions were printed on the bottom.

  3. says

    Also: I had fish, once, and I don’t think they responded to my emotions. There appears to be a scale, as creatures get more complex, they get smarter (dealing with complexity!) and part of being smarter includes modeling the behavior of other creatures. I have not had the pleasure, but I know someone who used to have a pet otter, and they insisted that the otter was a much better judge of character than most Americans. It should escape nobody’s notice that dogs, and otters (cats are weird) tend to be pretty clever at being dogs and otters. What I found was really interesting was that my horse had a very different psychology. I chalk it up to the difference between predators, apex predators (cats) and prey. P-nut’s emotional landscape was pretty much “wuts dat. do I need to run from it?” whereas my dogs’ was “wuts dat. woof woof. is it food or threat?” and a cat’s emotional landscape never made much sense to me at all – basically “should I kill and eat this, or just wait for it to fuck off?” I have known cats that are quite emotionally engaged (one Minerva by name who actively hated me and would hiss at me when she saw me) (all because I sat on her once when she was hiding on the couch) and others that simply prefer to think their own thoughts, apparently. Or perhaps they are stupid.

    P-nut, the horse actively enjoyed mischief. His expression changed noticeably when he was having an idea for something to do. It was adorable except when it wasn’t. Usually it was adorable. He was too smart, to be a horse. One of his favorite games was sneaking a farriers’ rasp out of their pocket if he could and tossing it to the other side of the barn. Hilarity when the farrier starts going “what the hell!?” when they reach for the rasp. He did this with several farriers. He also liked to snatch people’s ball caps in his mouth and then go booming in a huge canter across the field. Just ball caps, because he did that once with an expensive Stetson and I had to explain it to him.

    There is an excellent book by Carl Safina about whether animals communicate. His answer is, “duh, that is super obvious.” Anyone who has had a cat claw their leg, or a dog stand expectantly by its bowl: they are trying to tell you something!! Another point he made which I particularly loved was, “that is what dogs barking is.” Elephants communications are amazing. You don’t talk to an adult elephant, you talk to the herd of adult elephants and if one of them is not in the immediate vicinity the others apparently brief it at the morning staff meeting or something. He points out that elephants are easily smart enough to use gestural/postural communications we aren’t smart enough to follow.

    What I am getting at is that it is my opinion that the predator/prey role (ecological niche?) of a creature appears to shape the kind of intelligence it has, and therefore its emotional life.

  4. StevoR says

    How much do you think pets understand our emotions?

    Very much. They do. I’ve had numerous cats and dogs over my life – got a dog (very mixed breed) and a cat (domestic shorthair tabby) here now. Algieba – my cat -is the soppiest and mostaffectionate one I’ve ever ahd and loves to sit up on my shpoulder or on my lap. My current dog – Roxxi – is also a really affectionate, sweet-ntured dog that very much wants to be with me and can cleadefinitley read my modd and body language and tone. I have no doubt of their emotions and their ability to pick up on and empathise with our human emotions too. Yes, I have (& have had) very special connections with all of them.
    That some people imagine animals don’t have emotions or don’t at least know our emotions baffles me.

  5. Katydid says

    Cats are both predator and prey, and a lot of their behavior toward people comes from their earliest days. For example; a cat born feral will almost never align with people. A cat born into a house with people who is treated well will seek out people. Cats communicate with people by meowing in a way they don’t with their own species–they realize humans can’t hear the tones they use to communicate, and adjust to us.

    One of the cats I had when my oldest was born was very curious about the new little human. When the baby cried, the cat would run to us and try to herd us to the baby. Later, the cat would snuggle with the baby to give comfort. I had another cat that–back in the days of the cassette answering machines–would hear my voice on the machine and then look skeptically at me. The cat knew it was my voice, but not quite my voice. Last anecdote; after a fraught stay in the hospital, when I came home, my cat ran to me and cried as it snuggled–obviously the cat missed me.

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