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Jealousy

Do Cats Get Jealous?

They connect with their humans, but how far does it go?

Key points

  • People attribute complex emotions, like jealousy, to their cats.
  • Researchers conducted an experiment in which cats watched their owners and a stranger pet plush cats and pillows.
  • Findings indicated that pet cats attended the most to plush cats petted by their owners; however, other signs of jealousy were not found.
doanme / pixabay
Cats in their homes looked at the stuffed cat (vs. the furry pillow) for longer after the owner petted it
Source: doanme / pixabay

Cats are known for their sassy nature. It is of no surprise, then, that cat owners often attribute a particular secondary emotion—jealousy—to their pets. But do cats really feel jealousy?

The research on jealousy among non-human animals is sparse. Jealousy has been documented in dogs, who have been found to show jealousy when their owners interact with fake dogs vs. other objects (e.g., a jack-o-lantern). Specifically, dogs attend more to the fake dog (vs. the other object), show aggression toward it, and attempt to separate it from their owners. Other studies using real dogs as the rival show similar findings.

Like dogs, cats have been found to bond closely with their owners and to become distressed when separated from their owners. Therefore, it is certainly plausible that cats too may feel jealousy regarding their owners’ attention.

Bucher et al. (2020) tested this question among 52 cats (9 months to 17 years old, mean age 5.9) living in homes or cat cafes in Japan. Cats were required to have lived with their owner (or the cat café owner) for at least 6 months.

To conduct the study, the researchers visited the home or cat café with a cat-shaped plush and a furry pillow of a similar color and texture. The cat-shaped plush represented a “social rival” whereas the furry pillow represented a non-social object. They then observed cats’ reactions when their owner or a stranger (an experimenter) petted and talked to the cat plush versus the pillow for 15 seconds. Cats were gently restrained during the petting session to make sure they watched the petting. After each petting session, cats were observed as they freely explored the environment. Multiple trials were conducted for the owner vs. the stranger and the cat plush vs. the pillow, and each cat participated in each condition.

Results indicated that during the petting session, cats focused more on objects that their owners (vs. the stranger) petted regardless of their shape. However, after the petting session, cats in their homes looked at the stuffed cat (vs. the furry pillow) for longer after the owner petted it. There was no difference in how much time they spent looking at the stuffed cat vs. the furry pillow when the stranger petted it.

Kadres / pixabay
Given that cats did not show distress, future research should replicate the study using real cats as social rivals
Source: Kadres / pixabay

In conclusion, cats clearly form a connection with their owners. Regardless of the object, they attended more to their owner’s actions than the stranger’s actions. But do they experience jealousy? Cats in the homes did show some semblance of jealousy given their focus on the cat plushies after their owners petted them. Their relative apathy in the stranger condition indicates that their behavior must have to do with the bonds they forged with their humans. Cats in the cafes may not have felt the same bond or ownership of their humans due to the large number of cats at cat cafes. However, cats did not show the negative emotions or behaviors found in dogs and human infants through similar paradigms. Unlike dogs, cats did not try to separate their humans from the cat plush. Unlike human infants, cats did not show stress-related behaviors. There was altogether no indication that they were distressed, which is a key aspect of jealousy.

The authors emphasize a major limitation that may explain cats’ lack of distress. To truly test for jealousy in cats, future researchers may need to take things a step further and use real cats as rivals. Unlike dogs and human infants, cats may simply understand that a cat-shaped plush cannot compare to them.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Taras Verkhovynets/Shutterstock

References

Bucher, B., Arahori, M., Chijiwa, H., Takagi, S., & Fujita, K. (2020). Domestic cats’ reactions to their owner and an unknown individual petting a potential rival. Pet Behaviour Science, (9), 16-33. 10.21071/pbs.vi9.12176

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