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Do cats miss their owners?

Grey cat lying down on the floor

A cat can miss its owner

© Shutterstock

Cats show signs of problems more subtly than we expect. They take care of themselves, and seem more self-assured than, for instance, dogs. As a result we tend to think of cats as lacking in owner attachment.

By Karen Wild, CCAB Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourist

Updated on the 08/02/2021, 13:25

But ongoing research suggests we may be misreading the signs of cat behaviour. Cats behave as if they form secure attachment bonds with their owners, but is this the reality? Is it really separation anxiety and unhappiness we see, in cats that are left alone or abandoned?

The problem we face is that on the whole cats do not exhibit emotion as openly as dogs. It’s understandable that we humans do not spot the signs that cats give. How do we know if your cat misses you when you are away? Is your cat really just frustrated because their source of food and interest is no longer there?

The truth may be found from studies of animal behaviour.

Cats may be solitary but they are also quite social when they choose. Felines may naturally not have an innate need for human affection, compared to dogs, but they will still look for it and enjoy it when it is on offer. We look at some of the facts about cat behaviour to help us understand.

Do cats miss their owners when they leave?

A 2015 study from Lincoln University suggests cats do not appear to depend on their owners as a safe base. The study showed that this apparent lack of separation anxiety is due to a cat’s lack of attachment to its owner. In fact, this Lincoln University research appears to show that behaviours such as vocalisation are more a sign of the cat’s frustration at the departure of the human, rather than it being from sadness!

Do cats get attached to their owners?

Dogs tend to depend on humans for safety and security. It is thought that at some point in the evolution of the dog from the wolf, a dog’s preference for social bonding developed, most likely based on a basic need, either in a pack of its peers for breeding, or amongst humans for co-operative survival. It’s probable that we humans deliberately selected those dogs more willing to show this mutual dependency.

It was this gregarious nature and willingness to ‘stick around’ that we think was the germ of our association with the modern dog, and led to its being fully domesticated.

Cats have neither the same past nor the same survival needs as dogs and therefore remain without this embedded necessity. But curiously - unlike their wild big cousins - they will also visit us and live with us at ease.

Scientists at Kristyn Vitale of Oregon State University announced in 2019 that a cat’s living with us can develop into a far greater bonded relationship than we previously thought was possible. In fact, the Oregon research suggests the depth of a cat’s bond with its owner is almost on par with that of some dogs. That forces us to reconsider cats merely as detached ‘wild’ animals. We also need to be cautious when describing cats in ‘dog-related’ terms as this can mislead.

Cats are an entirely separate species, even though we humans may describe them under the banner ‘pets’.

The Oregon research

Vitale and her team conducted certain types of separation test on 79 kittens and 38 cats. They found a collective willingness of the cat’s to co-operate with co-testing humans.

Of the kittens, 64.3% were categorised as securely attached and 35.7% as insecurely attached. The adult cats showed similar rates: 65.8% exhibiting secure attachment and 34.2% insecure. This indicates that bonding could be related to heritable factors too.

Do cats get sad when you leave?

We must urge caution when we talk about an animal getting ‘sad’. Sadness is a word we use to describe a certain feeling, and we may use the term most readily to describe a sense of loss. There is no reason to think that a cat’s sense of loss may be any less than our own, but can this lead the animal to ‘sadness’? It is impossible to tell.

What we can identify though is a cat that is under the weather either physically or psychologically. Furthermore, evidence of cats mourning their owners is commonplace, so feasibly we may say that a cat that is bereft of their owner – either by abandonment or temporary absence – can feel such a sense of loss. Whether or not we can say the cat is ‘sad’ is debatable.

Do cats have any feelings for their owners?

Cats will have various feelings for their owner, and the strength of the feeling can vary depending on early experience, heritability (possibly differences between breeds) and between cats that come from different households.

Cats – even in the wild – are more solitary than dogs, and will only secure an allegiance with another cat (or you in its eyes) if it needs an ally or considers the other cat to be worthy of an alliance. It is widely assumed that cats do not depend on social contact for survival, and some may not enjoy it.

One of the things cat owners can do in order to cement their relationship with their pet is by treating the cat well, learning to read their body signals, and prviding food, water and shelter.

Do you give your cat all of your love? How do you tell if your cat is happy? 

How do you know if your cat misses you?

In order to find out whether our cat has feelings for us we must first know the signs of affection. If a cat shows us affection it is logical to presume that the same cat will sense a loss when we leave.

Here are five ways by which a cat will show its owner affection:

  • A happy cat will sit next to its owner and want to be with them
  • A happy cat will purr contentedly
  • A happy cat will expose its belly to the owner (caution - a cat will also do this when they no longer want to be touched, bringing all four sets of claws into action).
  • A happy cat will brush along its owner’s leg or arm, running their faces closely which will transfer scent.
  • A happy cat will make greeting noises such as ‘chirrups’

We can say that a cat is capable of missing an owner if its relationship with the owner is one full of love and mutual respect. In order to achieve such a union you must take on ownership in full. Cats may be solitary and they may not need affection as much as dogs but they have graced us with their presence, and we should cherish them as domestic pets.

As such, cats deserve care and compassion as much as any other. Learn how to identify an unhappy cat or one that pines for your presence and make allowances in your life in order to spend more time together. A cat is not an animal that needs a human for survival, but it is one that will enjoy what we have to offer.

Will my cat miss me if I give her away?

The question could be, do cats miss their previous owners? A lot depends on what that owner meant to them and provided for them. A cat that misses their owner could simply be missing the comforts that owner provided, and can transfer this same feeling to a new family.

Do cats forget their owners?

This is hard to say, since we cannot ask the cat! However, we know that cats do form some attachments that are meaningful to the cat. A cat learns from their owner, so they may not forget that learning!

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