Cats are known for being independent creatures that don’t always need human companionship. But there are times when they do require our attention, especially during stressful situations. Learn how to tell what is going on and comfort your feline friend in these difficult moments. Let’s see why does a cat cry and whether cats have emotions.

Cats Are Emotional Creatures

Cats are emotional creatures who feel pain just as we do. They also have different ways of expressing their emotions than humans do. If you notice your cat crying, he might be feeling stressed, lonely, or scared. You can help him by providing him with affection, food, and company.

Cats are very social animals. They enjoy being part of a family and having friends. They love attention and will often show their affection through purring, rubbing against you, or even meowing.

They have feelings just like us!

Really, do cats cry?

We, humans, are the only species capable of crying (“crying” defined as the emission of emotional tears). However, cats may express emotions through sounds that we humans interpret as crying.

The young of several mammals and even some birds produce distress calls when separated from their mother. Thus, crying in young animals is an innate programmed behavior not involving previous learning. Cats are no exception. Adult cats make certain noises (vocalizations), somehow related to human crying.

What does it sound like when cats cry?

What we would call crying in a human being is equivalent to groans or yowling in cats.

What does it mean when your cat cries?

Cats have several emotional systems built in their brains.

Emotions in cats have evolved through centuries to help them survive.

One of the emotional systems in cats is the panic-grief system. Cats make these “crying” sounds for several reasons. First, kittens produce acute loud sounds to drive their mother’s attention for nurture and help. They will engage more heavily in this behavior when separated from their mother. This hard-wired behavior is meant to guarantee the survival of the species through evolution.  

Cats cry when under stress. This female cat is crying out for desperation. She calls for atention
Courtesy of Farzan Lelinwalla from Unsplash

But what about adult cats? The panic-grief system is activated in adult cats when they lose a bond, such as a sibling or other housemate cat. They feel lonely and miss their friend, so they start crying.

A more robust “cry” vocalization is yowling, which may indicate mating behavior, defense of territory, or pain. The climax of a crying behavior is the “scream” sound usually associated with sharp pain.

Adult cats are nocturnal animals so they tend to do a lot of this crying at night, especially if they engage in mating activity.

Can cats feel sadness?

In a way, cats can feel sadness, but with a twist.

Sadness is a highly elaborated, subjective feeling in humans.

On the other hand, emotions are the sum of brain physiological activity linked to specific behaviors called reactions.

When we humans are sad, some parts of our brain cortex get activated and produce the consciousness of emotions (and just then we will feel sad).

Most animal behaviorists would say cats (and the rest of non-human animals) do not have the consciousness of feelings of sadness or grief, which are very much developed in humans.

Sad cat meme. A cat supposedly "feeling blue"

So what about cats (and other non-human animals)?

We may assume animals like cats have some degree of what we humans experience as feelings (in this case, sadness) because they also have areas in the brain dedicated to feelings (the limbic system). Furthermore, the centers of emotions in the brain in animals show various connections with the brain cortex (responsible for consciousness).
As cats cannot talk, we will probably never be sure about this. What we can affirm, however, that when we see a cat “crying” a brain program (neuronal connections) starts running, and the outcome is to produce specific vocalizations that we humans interpret as “crying”.

What else could it mean when cats are crying?

As cat owners, we should be aware of “crying” and other types of cat vocalizations. Cats do not express pain explicitly because they have learned through thousands of years of evolution to hide any distress or clues that may reveal pain. It is as if they don’t want to reveal their weakness when hurt and attract predators that might attack them. For that reason, when a “cry” sound is produced due to pain, it means a cat needs help and attention immediately.

Cats rely on our empathy more than we think!

If you would like to learn more about cat emotions, read this interesting scientific article.


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