When it comes to pets and affection, dogs get all the credit.
They’re the ones with the wagging tails and slobbery kisses; the pets who jump in your arms when you come home from work and follow you around the house, begging to play.
Cats, on the other hand, are more subtle. They can have the same affinity for their owners. They just show it in different ways.
Dogs evolved to be more social because they’re used to working in packs, says Dr. Jill Sackman, a clinician in behavioral medicine and senior medical director of BluePearl Veterinary Partners’ Michigan hospitals. Our feline friends, however, are believed to have descended from the African wild cat. These are solitary animals. They don’t hang out in groups outside the family unit.
It’s believed today’s domestic cats think their human owners are actually other cats, albeit slightly bigger and weirder looking ones, says Sackman. Thus, they show their affection for us the same way they would for other members of their feline family.
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Exposing the abdomen is a sign of submission, says Dr. Rachel Barrack of New York City’s Animal Acupuncture. The cat is saying she feels completely comfortable in your presence.
“This is the ultimate sign of cat trust!” she says.
Kitty may be expressing her willingness to be vulnerable around you, but heads up: “The cat is not saying ‘please come scratch my belly,’” says Sackman.
Giving You Presents
“Cats are natural predators,” says Barrack. “If your indoor/outdoor cat brings you their kill, this is actually a feline love token. They are trying to share their prize with you.”
This is just another way cats in the wild show affection for each other, says Sackman. In the feline world, mama cats bring their babies half-dead animals so the kittens get a chance to practice their killing skills, she says.
In the wild, feline family units usually sleep together, says Sackman. So if your cat stays close, that’s a good sign he thinks of you as part of his clan.
“If your cat is lingering and spending time near you or touching you, this is his way of showing love,” says Barrack.
Making eye contact with you and blinking slowly is often referred to as a “cat kiss,” says Barrack.
It’s one way cats show trust and affection to each other, and to you.
“It’s a way of saying ‘I’m relaxed and I’m comfortable in your presence,’” says Sackman. “That’s a real compliment from a cat.”
Throughout their body, cats have scent glands that produce pheromones. These tiny molecules are like airborne messages for other cats, says Barrack. A mama cat might emit them when she’s nursing to soothe her kittens. A scared cat might use them to alert others of possible danger.
Pheromones are also one way cats tell each other: “this is mine.”
Large chunks of a cat’s pheromone producing glands are located in the cheeks and head, says Barrack. So when Kitty greets you with head butts and asks for cheeks rubs, she’s showing affection and ownership.
“They’re marking their territory,” says Sackman. “They’re reestablishing their pheromones on you, but it’s very much a friendly behavior.”
Your cat’s tail movement is a good indicator of her mood, says Barrack. If she flicks the tip of her tail when you’re around, or wraps it around you, she’s saying, “hi, I like you.”
Again, blame pheromones.
Cats also release these from parts of their tails, says Sackman. Kitty is using her tail to mark you as part of her clan.
Cats who are part of the same family group often groom each other, says Sackman.
“If your cat licks you, they are grooming you just like a mother does to her kittens,” says Barrack. “This is another one of their ways of showing love.”
“The strongest social bond in cats is between a mother and her kittens,” says Sackman.
It’s believed kittens purr as a signal to their mothers to stay still and feed them, she says. The act of kneading her belly while they’re nursing may help keep the milk flowing.
So if your cat starts purring and kneading you, consider it a compliment.
“A cat kneading and rubbing up against you is their way of treating you like another cat, “ says Sackman.
Helen Anne Travis is a freelance writer based in Tampa, FL. She also writes for CNN, The Guardian and The Globe and Mail.