Does Your Cat Actually Hate You?

Does Your Cat Actually Hate You?
Image: Pixabay

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 aren’t living a lie, 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 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 from the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis (and also a cat behaviour consultant at Feline Minds and co-author of Total Cat Mojo) said that 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,” Delgado said. “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, Delgado explained.

“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,” she added.

“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.”

Delgado recommends learning more 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, she added, 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,” she said.

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 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. Hopefully that gives people a little more empathy for their cats,” Delgado added. “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.”

Similarly, Carlo Siracusa, Clinical Assistant Professor, Behaviour Medicine, University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, said 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,” Siracusa said.

“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.

According to Sharon Crowell-Davis, Professor, Behaviour &; Anatomy, University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, with a focus in behaviour problems in cats, while some cats avoid certain people, snarl at others and sometimes even pounce to attack, she’d never use the word ‘hate’.

“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,” she explained.

“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.”

One of the best pieces of advice Crowell-Davis has 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.

This article has been updated since it was first published.