Can Cats Feel Jealousy?

Bud isn’t fond of my smartphone.

Like many other humans I spend too much time looking at the damn thing, and that’s not good even though I have the excuse that I use my phone as a reader and my presence on social media ranges from extremely limited to nonexistent.

When His Grace has decided I’ve looked at the screen long enough and it’s Buddy Time, he’ll pad up and slap the phone out of my hands, or if I’m laying down he’ll climb on top of me, nudge the phone out of the way and sit on my chest so he has my full attention.

“No glowing rectangle!” he’s saying. “It’s Buddy Time! Now scratch my chin and rub the top of my head as I purr!”

Naturally I comply, and before long Buddy is leaning in, pressing the top of his head against my forehead, which is his way of saying: “I love you, slow dumb human! You have many flaws and you don’t give me enough snacks, but you’re my Big Buddy!”

Of course, intuitively knowing Buddy is jealous of — or annoyed by — my phone is different than proving it in a well-designed, repeatable experiment.

Psychology Today’s Jessica Wu writes about just such an effort by a team of researchers out of Japan.

Before I offer my criticism of the study, let me first say I have respect for the team at Kyoto University. They’re one of a handful of research teams around the world that routinely produce studies into cat behavior and cognition, and it’s clear that they view it as an important and crucial area of research. That’s significant, because even though we’ve seen something of a renaissance in cat-related studies over the past half-decade or so, many scientists still think cats are nearly impossible to work with.

The team at Kyoto also understands the territorial nature of cats makes it difficult to study them in a lab environment, so they go the extra mile and enlist people who are willing to let them into their homes to study their little tigers.

That’s what the Kyoto team did for their 2020 study on jealousy, splitting their research between typical homes and cat cafes. (Fifty two cats in total participated.) All the cats observed in the study had been living in their homes or cafes for at least six months.

Researchers took a method that’s been used to study human babies and dogs, and adapted it for felines. They brought in a plush cat and a pillow with a corresponding color and texture.

Then they asked the participants to spend time petting the plush cat and the pillow in front of their furry overlords while team members carefully watched the kitties for their reaction. Each experiment was then repeated with a stranger petting the plush and the pillow to gauge whether cats behaved differently when observing someone they aren’t emotionally attached to.

The team found the cats “reacted more intensely” to the plush cats than the pillows, but there wasn’t any marked difference in how they reacted when they watched their humans versus strangers.

Crucially, the cats didn’t show signs that they were upset, like human babies have in such experiments, and they didn’t try to physically separate their humans from the plushies, as many dogs did in their version of the experiment.

“How dare you hand out yums and not include me!” Credit: icanhazcheezburger

The results indicate cats didn’t express jealousy in the experiment, but the Kyoto team are pros, noting that it’s just one study with one approach.

“We consider the existence of some cognitive bases for jealousy to emerge in cats, and the potential effect of cats’ living environment on the nature of their attachment to their owner,” they wrote. “More ecologically valid procedures are required for further study of these issues.”

It’s my non-expert, non-scientific opinion that researchers would get better results using actual cats instead of proxies. That introduces a new set of problems and an experiment involving rival cats won’t be easy, but science isn’t supposed to be easy, and if we really want to understand how cats think, we have to get as close as possible to mimicking real circumstances.

Plush Cat in Kyoto study
The plush cat used in the Kyoto study. Perhaps the cats involved in the research felt the humans were insulting their intelligence. Credit: Kyoto University

It would also help to expand the scope of the experiment. How much can researchers really glean from a fleeting interaction? Jealousy isn’t something that just bubbles up and disappears. It happens within an emotional context. It’s a secondary emotion that sprouts from elements of primary emotions like fear, anger and confusion.

Scientists are very careful about anthropomorphizing animals, for obvious reasons, but sometimes they’re guilty of over-correcting as well and denying the obvious, which is why the prevailing scientific opinion for almost half a century, until 1959, was that animals don’t have emotions or cognition.

In the meantime, Buddy will continue to make sure Buddy Time is equal to, or greater than, glowing rectangle time.

11 thoughts on “Can Cats Feel Jealousy?”

  1. That plush looks nothing like a cat! Japan makes incredible plushes and this is what the scientists chose? At first I thought it was a small dog. Considering Buddy’s habit of slapping the smart phone out of your hands: how many cracks does your phone have? 😉

    Years ago two of my cats didn’t get along: one was a big, lazy ginger female and the other was a tiny, half blind black cat. When the ginger cat napped the tiny cat would sneak up and launch a surprise attack. So one day I was on the couch close to a ginger plush.
    The tiny cat launched herself at the plush and savaged it. The real ginger cat – safely out of harm’s way – looked on in horror! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I have a Google Pixel 4a which is surprisingly durable, and it doesn’t just endure Bud slapping it out of my hands, it also ends up on the floor when I leave it on the coffee table or any other flat surface. Phone, remote controls, books, keys, water bottles, pens, vaporizers…they all end up on the floor. Bud’s a serial item-swiper/gravity experimenter.

      Agree, re: the plush cat. Plus you gotta wonder what dogs and cats think when they see something in front of them but there are none of the regular scents. They’ve gotta know something’s up.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. My cat, Luna, loves to get in the way of my phone. She sits on me and purposely moves her head so that she blocks it. 😹 it drives me crazy yet it’s so adorable at the same time… sadly, I think the cats are right, we waste so much time on our phones instead of prioritizing them. Sigh. That’s great that you keep your social media presence limited, I have been trying to do that for a long time but struggle… let me know if you’ve got any tips of that 🤣

    Liked by 1 person

    1. For me there are exactly two good things about Facebook: 1) It allowed me to connect with a half-sister I never knew I had (she found me), 2) I was able to reconnect with friends I haven’t seen in years.

      Other than that it’s a waste of time and I don’t like the way people act on the platform, nor do I like the way it amplifies negativity and false information.

      I never come away from using Facebook feeling good about myself, you know? I never feel like I learned something or that it was time well spent. I don’t think anyone really enjoys it.

      Twitter can be even more toxic than Facebook. It’s just a sea of incessant complaining, feigned outrage, delight at destroying/canceling people, schadenfreude, virtue-signaling and the ideologically-driven dehumanizing of other people.

      And the sad reality is by using those platforms, we’re giving tech companies an incredible amount of information about ourselves, and that information usually isn’t used for admirable purposes. That’s why I don’t use TikTok either. The idea of voluntarily handing my personal data to the Chinese government is not appealing.

      Your Luna is a smart kitty.

      Imagine what cats must be thinking when they see us glued to screens. We probably look like hypnotized zombies whose attention is impossible to get.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I deleted my Facebook several years ago and never looked back! I was addicted to endless scrolling, getting sucked into toxic drama, it was awful. I’m on Instagram to keep up with friends and family, to share my blog, but it can feel overwhelming much of the time. Yes you’re right that all of your data is shared and I know much of it goes to targeted advertising. Also when it comes to strangers or acquaintances being able to get so much information, can feel pretty scary. I’m trying to use social media more in a way that protects my privacy and doesn’t make everything so personal. But I’m torn between wanting a sense of privacy and mystery verses that urge to overshare…

        Also, that is so crazy and amazing about you and your half sister reconnecting!!!

        Hehe, she is too smart… oh yes, we must look like we are in a deep trance. Same goes for the TV. And the cats are like “uh…you okay? Look at me!!!”

        Liked by 2 people

  3. “The prevailing scientific opinion…, until 1959, was that cats don’t have emotions or cognition…” I was a child at that time and I could have told those scientists that they were wrong.
    And we’re supposed to “follow the science”!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That was when Chomsky debunked Skinner by showing cognition is necessary to explain not only human speech patterns, but also animal behavior. The link isn’t light reading but it’s fascinating and still so relevant today, especially since experiment after experiment with modern technology has confirmed Chomsky’s argument.

      When Chomsky wrote the paper in 1959, we didn’t have the ability to scan brains or use algorithmic AI to map brain activity, obviously, but from an animal rights perspective it was crucial because if everyone believes animals are unthinking, unfeeling automatons, it becomes much easier to justify ruthlessly exploitating them.

      I agree, it’s crazy that scientists believed animals couldn’t think or feel, but then again that was also the same time period when they put an African pygmy tribesman in the primate exhibit at the Bronx Zoo.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Luna is a smart girl! I don’t use much social media but manage to waste tiem online regardless. YT, Pinterest and forums take up a lot of my free time. I’m trying to cut down on the time spent online, but here I am …

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I feel like YT is what you make of it.

      I’m definitely guilty of watching amusingly dumb stuff, and I don’t think that’s necessarily bad if it makes you laugh. 🙂

      On the other hand there’s so much great content. I especially love videos that explain complex scientific and theoretical concepts in simple terms, like this video explaining the Dark Forest hypothesis posited by Liu Cixin in The Three Body Problem:

      I’ve watched Brian Greene explain advanced physics concepts, Noam Chomsky talk in depth about artificial intelligence, and Michio Kaku conduct three-hour-long interviews with the late Art Bell on topics like the Kardashev Scale, the Fermi Paradox, nuclear fusion, nanotech, etc.

      It’s also great for instructional content. I’ve learned a wide range of stuff, like guitar techniques, how to install/fix stuff, how to train Buddy to do tricks. (It worked!)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I think the Kyoto study needed to include cats who have known their humans longer than six months. Some cats are very jealous but late bloomers. One of mine cannot stand to see his brother getting pets. He will come flying to the couch where I am sitting and nudge inbetween us. But it took several years for him to do this. Maybe they need to expand the length of time to see better results.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Lisa, perhaps my wording is at fault. The study included cats who were living in their homes or in the cafe for *at least* six months. There was no age limit. The team was trying to filter out cats who have not had time to bond with their humans, as they would skew the results.


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