Dogs wear their hearts on their sleeves; cats – or at least some cats, some of the time – can spend years at your side without making it totally clear that they know, or care, who you are. An expression vaguely resembling contentment flits across their face and you think, triumphantly: see! My cat doesn’t despise me.
Which it very well might not. But if it did, wouldn’t you want to know? To make sure you’re not living a lie, for this week’s Giz Asks we reached out to a number of cat experts to figure out whether or not your cat really does hate you.
As it turns out, it might simply just be living in mortal fear of you. Or you might just be sad and insecure and using your cat’s totally neutral facial expression as a way to feel bad about yourself. Or – the science is not totally there on this – it might actually just full-on think you suck. Regardless, our experts provided plenty of ways to improve even emotionally healthy human-cat relationships.
Mikel Maria Delgado
Postdoctoral Researcher, School of Veterinary Medicine, UC Davis, cat behavior consultant at Feline Minds and co-author of Total Cat Mojo
For whatever reason, people seem really obsessed with projecting their own anxieties about their relationship with their cat onto the cats themselves. Maybe that’s because they’re comparing cats do dogs. Cats have fewer facial muscles than dogs, so they have fewer expressions that mimic human ones, whereas dogs have more facial expressions, and these expressions are closer to ours than cats’ are. Cats present a more neutral palette for people, so when someone’s encountering a cat it may not be obvious to them what the cat is feeling just from looking at them.
That said, cats will often have preferred people in the home, and some of that is likely due to socialisation. A cat whose exposed to many different types of people when they’re young will be more adaptable to different types of people when they get older. A kitten who is fostered in a quiet home with only one very quiet woman will probably be more comfortable with women later. We know, for example, that women tend to be smaller, we tend to be quieter, we tend to have higher-pitched voices, and these are all things that are less threatening to a cat. When a cat “doesn’t like” someone often the root of that feeling or behaviour is fear, and that fear is often just due to lack of positive exposures. Interactions also tend to be better if you let the cat call the shots and initiate contact with you, rather than you reaching out to pet a cat who’s clearly afraid of you.
People should try to learn about cats in general, and about their cat specifically. What does your individual cat respond to? Do they like to play with toys, and if so, what types? Do they like to be petted, and if so, where? Cats, if you interact with them, are not going to just lay there – they’re going to purr, or rub into your petting, or relax their body, or they’re going to do the opposite: they’re going to get tense, or start swishing their tail, or put their ears back which are all classic body language signs of arousal or irritation.
To be honest the best way to make your cat like you is to do more of the things they like, and fewer of the things they don’t like. If they don’t like being picked up and held like a baby, don’t pick them up and hold them like a baby. A lot of it is really setting up an environment and setting up social interactions that allow your cat to succeed. Having a good relationship with your cat is a two way street – it’s not just does your cat hate you, but are you providing your cat with what they need so that they will love living with you.
It’s important for people to recognize that the cat’s not a jerk and that the cat doesn’t hate you, and to understand the motivation for their behavior, which is almost always fear. Hopefully that gives people a little more empathy for ther cats.
"It’s important for people to recognise that the cat’s not a jerk and that the cat doesn’t hate you, and to understand the motivation for their behaviour, which is almost always fear."
Clinical Assistant Professor, Behavior Medicine, University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine
Animals – including cats – develop preferences, like humans do. They might get along well with one person but not another. Usually it’s nothing personal – they’re not engaging in a fight with that specific person, there are just things the person does that the cat considers less safe, or less appealing. This applies to cats’ relationships with each other – in farms, for example, cats tend to congregate, and decide who stays in the group and who doesn’t. The major difference is that when cats live in a semi-feral condition, they can leave the group if they don’t like the specific company of a person or another animal. But the majority of indoor cats don’t have this option – they have to share the environment with an individual that they might not necessarily get along with very well.
Humans are very physical in their relationships – they want to hold their cat, hug their cat, etc. This can be terrible for any animal that doesn’t enjoy your presence, but it’s even worse for cats, because the way in which cats express their preferences is through proximity. Unlike humans, or dogs, they don’t engage in a lot of physical contact, even when they like a person.
Often, if they don’t get along with a specific person that person will take it personally, and will try to increase their physical interactions with the cat, and because cats aren’t physical animals this usually just makes things worse.
One thing you can do to improve your relationship with your cat is to make sure that they have a place where they can hide from other people when they want some privacy. All the things that are essential to the cat – like food, their litter box, water, a comfortable resting place, some environmental enrichments or some toys – should be in this place, so that if I’m a cat and I want to eat my food I can be alone. We tend to call this a core area.
Professor, Behaviour Anatomy, University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, with a focus in behavior problems in cats
There are cats that come up to people and rub on their legs, and climb in their laps – they clearly like those people. There are cats that will avoid given people, but won’t attack them. There are cats that will avoid given people, and will snarl and hiss at them if they try to follow them. And then there are cats that will charge at you and attack you.
I would never use the word hate for the latter three cases – although I think it’s entirely plausible, given how close their brain structure is to ours, that they have a kind of emotion that would be analogous to our “hate.” Cats that run and hide from you don’t hate you – they’re afraid of you. People often mistakenly just think of cats as predators, without realising that they’re prey animals as well. A lot of the behaviour of cats is driven by their need to be safe, and to not be killed. If you try to approach your cat and he gets all hissy and growly, again, I don’t think that necessarily means he hates you – it probably means that he’s scared of you, but he’s prepared to defend himself against you.
As for the cats that chase people and attack them – there are a number of possible reasons for this behaviour. If it’s your own cat, it’s very commonly a phenomenon we call “play aggression.” Cat-play is normally very rough, and sometimes people raise cats in such a way that they learn to attack human hands and feet. It’s fun – you tickle them, and they bite you and scratch you. But when you’re doing that, you’re teaching the kittens a lesson: human hands are play objects to be bitten and scratched. Ideally, you should play with your cat using toys as intermediaries.
Many cats will run away from the people who are trying to pick them up and cuddles them, and will then go to the person who hates cats and doesn’t want to interact with them. This is because, for most cats, a stranger coming after them means danger. So they’re likely to avoid people like that, the same way I’d avoid an elephant walking towards me. The people who don’t like cats, they’re sitting still, they’re being totally non-threatening – so the cat will go sit in their lap. One of the best pieces of advice for cat lovers is to just stay still when meeting a new cat and let the cat decide when you’re no longer a danger to it.
"One of the best pieces of advice for cat lovers is to just stay still when meeting a new cat and let the cat decide when you’re no longer a danger to it."
Marci L. Koski
Certified feline behaviour and training consultant, Feline Behaviour Solutions
While cats have certainly gained a reputation for being aloof and distant, I could make a strong argument that they’re simply misunderstood. What may seem to be avoidance or disinterest (as interpreted by humans) may simply be cats behaving as the creatures they are: tiny, semi-domesticated (and semi-wild), carnivorous predatory beasties who are also prey to larger predators. They are quite different from dogs in the manner that they express love, trust, or the lack thereof, so some people may assume that anything other than a cat cuddled up on one’s lap or flopped over onto its back signals that their cat dislikes – or even hates – them. Because of their prey/predator nature, however, they have a range of behaviours that allows them to stay safe from predators while enabling them to catch prey and survive: they hide to escape detection, they hunt and attack (which can be focused on toys, other pets, or even human ankles and hands if not given an appropriate outlet), and they eat and eliminate in safe, protected areas. Because of their nature, these actions can be misinterpreted as dislike – and even hate – to uninformed humans.
Researchers have identified four primal emotions in animals: rage (annoyance and anger), prey chase drive, fear, and curiosity/interest/anticipation (or seeking). There are also four primary social emotions: sexual attraction, separation distress, social attachment, and play. Yes, cats can build negative associations with a person depending on how they are treated – an abused or mistreated cat may show the rage emotion when confronted with such a person. However, cats generally don’t like confrontation, and avoidance of that person is likely the preferred action cats will take, if allowed. On the other hand, the seeking emotion is pleasurable. Any actions that promote curiosity, interest, or anticipation will make a cat feel good, and the cat will seek out more of these opportunities. This includes building a trusting relationship with someone who provides food, enrichment activities and items, play, and affection. Humans being humans, however, are quick to anthropomorphise body language and behaviour. A cat who sits with her back to you is not ignoring you – she is showing you a strong sign of trust by not needing to keep an eye on what you’re doing. A cat who bites when being petted likely doesn’t hate you – he would probably not let you pet him in the first place, and was likely touched in the wrong place or overstimulated.
Assuming that a person hasn’t done anything specifically to merit a negative reaction from a cat (e.g., abuse or mistreatment), cats can be very accepting of people when given the time to build trust. Letting a cat come to you and using positive reinforcement to reward progress is key. Just like making a new friend, it takes time to build trust and rapport with a new cat – but being patient and predictable can pay off quicker than you think!
"A cat who sits with her back to you is not ignoring you – she is showing you a strong sign of trust by not needing to keep an eye on what you’re doing."
Professor Emeritus, Clinical Sciences, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University
It has been shown that cats have preferred associates. They may not hate you (unlikely) but you may not be their favorite person. If a cat is abused by a person, it will be frightened of them and give them a wide berth. If such a cat is encroached upon by that person and cannot escape, it may attack – which could be interpreted at hate, or loathing, but is more likely just proactive, fearful defensiveness.
Hate is a strong word – and hate is a tertiary emotion, the kind cats are not supposed to possess. But sometimes as in the examples above, they surely give some people a very wide berth.
Clinical Instructor, Animal Behaviour, Tufts University
No, I do not think that cats dislike their owners. If they avoid their owners, it is most likely due to fear. Also, human and feline relational styles are different, which can lead to misunderstanding. For example, people like to show affection by hugging and kissing but few cats appreciate that kind of love. Also, people tend to be low frequency, high intensity interactors whereas cats tend to be high frequency, low intensity interactors. That is to say, people work all day and want to spend the evening petting and playing with the cat. Cats tend to prefer brief petting sessions and bouts of play that are short and active (think zoomies).
Another thing that could look like dislike is depression. If a cat is not adequately stimulated or is forced to have hours and hours of social isolation, he or she may seem standoffish and disinterested. If owners are not consistent, a cat may become anxious, which also creates distance and stretches the human-animal bond.
It is hard enough to communicate with another member of the same species who speaks a different language and has a different culture. There are bound to be misunderstandings in cross species communication. It behooves every cat owner to learn to “speak cat”. To have a truly meaningful relationship with a cat, an owner must learn what is meaningful to cats (their species-specific behaviours) and how they communicate. We owe it to our feline companions to do as much as we can to cross the communication gap.