BOOKS: The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2003:
The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats:
A Journey Into The Feline Heart
by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
Ballantine books (c/o Random House, 1540 Broadway,
New York, NY 10036), 2002. 240 pages. $24.95 hardcover.
Cats, enigmatic creatures, what are they all about? What
are their emotions? How do they experience the world?
Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, author of Dogs Never Lie About
Love (1997), who now lives in New Zealand with five cats, purports
to reveal many feline secrets in The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats.
Other observers might disagree with many of his beliefs.
According to Masson, the nine basic emotional states of cats
include narcissism, love, contentment, attachment, jealousy,
fear, anger, curiosity, and playfulness, often in mixed
The independence of cats is perhaps their best known trait.
All cats have their own agenda, which they will not alter to fit
ours. Cats cannot be controlled, resist calls to come, move, or
obey, and do not seem to care if they drive us crazy. A cat may
feel uncomfortable to see us becoming angry with whatever the cat is
doing or refusing to do, but cats never seem to feel guilty over
Masson traces this to evolution. For ten million years cats
lived as solitary hunters, interacting only with their mothers
during the first weeks of their life, and with other cats as sexual
partners from time to time. They were domesticated only about four
thousand years ago. How can we expect them to alter the mentality of
solitary dwellers in such a relatively short period of time, Masson
Yet cats do genuinely love us. They miss us when we are
absent, and if we are sad, they will often try to cheer us up. To
demonstrate their love they will purr, rub against us, blink, and
look away, all of which are signs of affection and trust in cat
Many cats choose a particular human to whom they become
emotionally bonded. They then may expect their human to be only
theirs, exclusive of relationships with other cats. Jealous cats
usually do not exhibit jealousy of people or animals other than cats.
Masson believes, contrary to the observations of other researchers,
that male cats appear to be more often jealous than females.
Masson notes that baby kittens, at least in normal-sized
litters, do not seem to be jealous of one another. Instead, each
kitten simply chooses one nipple and shows remarkable fidelity to it.
Nipple competition may develop, however, when the numbers of
kittens exceed the number of nipples available.
Masson argues that cats are not jealous of other cats’
possessions, as they possess nothing, are not interested in owning
anything, and do not even fight over food, other than live prey.
Cats are perfectly happy, he asserts, if they have a safe home,
freedom of movement, and human friendship.
Though perhaps generally true of most cats, it is not
difficult for people who have known many cats to think of exceptions.
When feeling secure, when trusting in their immediate
environment, including in their relationships with nearby humans,
Masson continues, cats are perfectly content with life. They can
become so absorbed in their contentment, that it literally “rubs
off” on us. For example, scientists have demonstrated that petting
a purring cat tends to lower the blood pressure of stressed humans.
Cats can often read our intentions. They think about us on a
regular basis, and seem to be quicker to trust us than most other
animals, especially other species which have the ability to survive
without human help.
Some cats take empathy to farther extremes. Masson describes
the case of a devoted cat who threw himself out of a ten-story window
after his human guardian had done the same and died. Though badly
injured, the cat survived.
When in trouble, even half-tamed feral cats will often ask
for our help and protection. The narcissism of cats, Masson
believes, may mean nothing more than that cats are happy to be
Some cats are well aware that they are pretty, and enjoy
being looked at. They know how fine they are. On the other hand,
cats also seem to understand when they are laughed at, and they
mostly hate it, much like most humans.
What do cats feel toward each other? Male/female cat
relationships usually seem to be purely sexual, Masson asserts, but
mother cats may become very attached to their daughters. Cats can
become inseparable from each other, humans, and dogs, Masson
continues, but very rarely develop such attachments with other
These assumptions can be debated. For example, many
observers have noted that certain female cats, both domestic and
feral, will accept only one male, and will vigorously express their
affection for that male whenever they meet, while fighting off all
others. Also commonly observed is that while some wandering toms
kill kittens, tomcats of high status protect their kittens and
territory from marauders, often in coalition with subordinate males.
Although cats usually do not hunt or fight in packs, an exception
can occur if an outsider threatens a colony. Then “deputy” cats may
rush to the aid of the dominant tom.
The territoriality of cats may be their second most observed
trait, and is shared by most wild felines. Cats resist relocation,
if they perceive any choice about it. Neither do most cats readily
accept new people in their homes, according to Masson–but there are
gregarious cats in homes and businesses all over the world for whom
greeting and welcoming visitors is a favorite occupation.
When cats have no need to fight for food and mating
opportunities, they put their hearts into play. Cats express their
affection for humans by inviting us to play with them, and also
enjoy playing with each other. Often cat play will become a fight,
but it will not be a serious fight, and a few minutes later the
combatants may lick one another as if nothing has happened.
Some people believe cats are cruel, even sadistic, because
they will often play with an injured mouse or bird. However cats do
not appear to derive pleasure from the pain of the mouse or bird.
Instead, it is re-enacting the hunt that cats enjoy, and they seem
to have at least as much fun with catnip-filled toys, especially if
the toys are capable of bouncing or rolling in unexpected ways.
Despite the attachment of cats to their homes and humans,
Masson believes, a cat is rarely ever happy without some freedom of
access to the external world. Feline nature requires attention to
external stimulus. Cats of all species, including those kept behind
zoo bars, familiarize themselves intimately with their surroundings
and then watch, listen, and taste the air continually to detect
small changes which may signify something of importance, such as the
arrival of food, or a threat.
Cats in the wild alternate between lying in half-asleep
ambush and making territorial rounds, in search of more promising
ambush locations. When caged cats pace with a longing look in their
eyes, says Masson, they are frustrated by their inability to roam.
Cats kept exclusively indoors or left alone in an apartment
for the whole day may likewise miss their freedom to make rounds. We
could enrich their lives by taking a companion animal, installing
cat doors or indoor gardens, or by moving to accommodations more
congenial to cats. Often furnishings and storage areas can be
rearranged to multiply the territory for cats to explore each day.
Let sleeping cats lie, Masson believes, if you want to be
in your cat’s good graces. Though rarely angry with humans, cats
resent disrespect of their wishes.
Men more often than women “rub cats the wrong way” by
expecting obedience and attempting to “train” cats by showing them
“who is boss.”
Cats do not recognize bosses. They will accept the
leadership of dominant cats, or humans they respect, but at all
times are dignified creatures who “walk by themselves” rather than
accepting any kind of mistreatment or humiliation.
Masson believes that cats are in general very good-tempered
animals, whose occasional outbursts of anger tend to be short-lived.
Neither do cats seek revenge, Masson opines, adding in another
observation likely to be challenged that females are much less quick
to anger than males.
His observations are not original. Indeed the pioneering
tiger conservationist Jim Corbett observed much the same of tiger
behavior more than 70 years ago–but as with some of Masson’s other
claims, experienced cat-keepers may know of exceptions.
“Curiosity killed the cat” is an appropriate saying, Masson
believes. Cat curiosity may originate from their hunting instinct,
but they will often investigate a new object or strange noise for the
mere pleasure of it.
Masson thinks this is a clue as to why cats sleep 16 to 20 hours a
day: they need a good rest, he believes, in order to stay so alert
when they are awake. Yet scientific researchers long ago
demonstrated that cats are also uncommonly alert to even the most
minute changes in their environment when seemingly sound asleep.
Cat senses are much more acute than ours: they hear three
times better, and have the largest eyes of all domestic animals,
relative to their body size. Cats see colors differently from
humans, having fewer color receptors in their eyes because much of
their inner eye surface is reflective, magnifying light so as to
give them superb night vision. Thus cats see the world more-or-less
as we do at twilight, with green and blue hues predominant. Yet
wild cats appear to have at least some ability to see the full color
Masson concludes that there is still much we do not know about cats,
and much that is observed but not yet deciphered. Certainly cats do
not always understand our behaviour either–but, though cats “walk
by themselves,” they rarely walk far from us.
(Tanja Maroueva, now living in Switzerland, cofounded the Moscow
group profiled in the January/February 2003 edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE
as People for Animals/Russia. The group is now called VITA.)