Do Cats Worry About Their Humans?

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Introduction

Cats have a reputation for being aloof creatures, even with their human family members. When we most want to interact with them, they resist or disappear. We assume they don't care about us except as food vendors and occasionally affectionate roommates.

The truth seems to be a bit different. Cats may seem disinterested, but new research is uncovering some of their hidden feelings. What they're finding may interest you, as that special feline in your life may be more attached to you than they let on.

While a cat's limited facial expressions may make it hard to detect worry, there are cat behaviors that can be interpreted as concern. 

Signs Cats Worry About Their Humans

Recent studies have shown that cats notice if their humans are absent, especially for a longer period of time than it takes to go buy milk. When the human returns, the cat who was so affectionate before may walk away or appear to sulk. But when they seem to have made their point, they come around and rub your legs or meow incessantly until you pay attention to them. This is typically the extent that cats will go to show they were worried about you when you were gone. Were they truly worried, or just lonely and happy to see you?

Are cats aware of the worrisome possibilities that may arise when you're not at home, like car accidents or getting lost? They certainly seem to notice when we aren't feeling well, and find a place nearby to purr in sympathy. But if your cat comes running, or stays by your side for hours, chances are there's recognition that something changed on the home front and that it involved you. Is this worry, or something else? 

When you’re away, your cat does notice as their routine is disrupted. If you don’t feed them at the same time every day, and you aren’t there to comfort them when they need you, they can become anxious. There are several body language clues that show your cat has missed you when you walk back through the door, such as running to you when you arrive home, or weaving in and around your legs. If your cat stays near you constantly and spends more time than usual in your lap when you are home, they could be concerned about you.


Body Language

Signs your cat may be worried include:

  • Staring
  • Panting
  • Pacing

Other Signs

Other signs of concern can include:

  • Loud meowing
  • Staring at the door
  • Eliminating outside of litter box
  • Changes in Appetite

History of Cat and Human Bonds

Before they were domesticated, cats lived in the wild as solitary animals, sleeping and hunting mostly alone. They spent much of their time in trees, waiting for prey to pass under them, or hiding in the shrubbery to get away from the midday sun. They roamed at night, searching the terrain for dinner.  Until about 70 years ago, few cats lived indoors, but they’ve had relationships with humans for 10,000 to 12,000 years who always had plenty of rodents nearby for them to catch. Then they moved to share a tent, house, or hut with people. 

Over a few thousand years, cats became more and more domesticated, and they developed closer bonds with humans until they were accepted as pets and family members, instead of merely rodent catchers. We have a tendency as humans to see our own traits in our pets, which possibly led to the speculation that our feline friends worried about us. But for anyone who has shared their home with a cat, there’s no doubt that they are concerned when we are sick, or miss us when we are gone for a while.

The Science of Cats' Attachment to Humans

Interest in the social and cognitive skills of dogs has risen in the last few decades, leading to extensive research about how they feel and what’s going on inside their heads when they interact with the humans in their lives. A dog’s tendency to form connections is the foundation for studies that have only recently been applied to cats. The results indicate that our perception of cats as aloof and uncaring may not be accurate.

The researchers used already applied signs of infant knowing and caring to cats and kittens to demonstrate the attachment of felines to their people. In the experiment, a cat was placed in a room with their human for two minutes. The human then left and the cat was observed for two minutes. When the person returned, the cat’s reactions were compared to known infant socio-cognitive signs. It was discovered that the majority of cats showed a strong attachment and trust response. Even after training and behavioral therapy, the cats demonstrated attachment, suggesting the trait’s basis is emotional. 

Cats’ responses to their humans’ facial expressions and voices suggest that cats, like humans, are able to draw conclusions about how their people are reacting and feeling. When a person smiles, their cat responds by purring and approaching to be cuddled or stroked. When the person looks or sounds angry or upset, cats will often run away and hide. If we are ill or in pain, our facial grimacing or lethargy represent a change to the cat, who may react by checking us out, perhaps showing affection, and staying by our sides to make sure we are alright. 

Training Your Cat To Worry Less

While attachment and dependence behaviors may be welcome, significant anxiety reactions when their humans are out of sight or showing indications that they’re anxious or ill can be hard for some cats. Taking short trips outside the home to show the cat you’re returning can be helpful by desensitizing your kitty to your absences. Staying calm when you return, and allowing your cat to approach you when they’re ready is a good way to handle the situation.

Likewise, reacting to their anxiety with quiet confidence and gentleness may help to reduce it when you are home. Dropping everything and rushing to a cat’s side will only reinforce that there’s something to be anxious about. When you’re ill and your cat is all over you, anxiously staying by your side, rubbing against your legs or insisting they be allowed to sit on your lap and knead your tummy, responding with affection of your own to make them feel secure might calm them.


How to React When Kitty Seems Worried

  • Offer a treat
  • Sit quietly with them, calmly stroking and scratching them
  • Work to desensitize their anxiety by “practicing” leaving and returning
  • Be ready to show your love whenever it’s appropriate
  • Share your experiences with others