The Green-Eyed Monster. Do Cats Really Experience Jealousy?


The question of whether cats experience jealousy is one that has been debated by pet owners, veterinarians, and animal behaviorists alike. Jealousy is often defined in animals as protective, territorial behavior intended to guard access to valuable resources from competitors. However, some argue this does not necessarily equate to the complex emotion of jealousy that humans experience.

In cats specifically, their independent nature makes determining if they feel jealousy quite difficult. While cats do exhibit territorial behaviors, some believe these are simply instinctual reactions rather than emotion-driven ones. Their relationships with humans also follow different social rules than human-human or dog-human bonds.

This article will examine anecdotal evidence of jealous behavior in cats, territoriality and social hierarchy, scientific research on feline emotions and brain chemistry, evolutionary explanations, and alternative viewpoints. The goal is to explore whether cats are capable of feeling jealous like humans do, or if other factors better explain their behaviors.

Anecdotal Evidence

Many cat owners report witnessing jealous behavior from their cats when they give attention to babies, other pets, or even inanimate objects like toys or devices. Common anecdotes include cats acting more affectionate and demanding of the owner’s attention when a new baby arrives home (, meowing loudly or crying when the owner holds or feeds a baby, knocking things off tables and counters, or even urinating on the baby’s belongings.

On online forums, owners share stories of cats becoming hostile toward babies and small children when they approach or try to pet the cat. Some cats will hiss, swat, or scratch at the baby or child, potentially seeing them as a threat. Other cats become despondent and hide when a new baby arrives, sulking due to the lack of attention.

While anecdotes do not prove definitive jealousy, they suggest cats are capable of distress and acting out when their social standing or bond with the owner is disrupted by interlopers like babies. The possessive behaviors point to a strong cat-human attachment bond analogous in some ways to human jealousy and resentment.

Territory Guarding

Cats are inherently territorial animals. They often view their home and surroundings as their own personal property or territory that they must defend (1). This territorial behavior is partly driven by instincts to guard valuable resources like food, shelter, and mating access from other cats. When another cat encroaches on their territory, they may react aggressively to drive the intruder away (2). This resource guarding could be interpreted as feline jealousy by cat owners. If a resident cat sees a new cat getting attention and resources from the owner, they may act out territorially to regain priority access to the owner’s affection and home. So some jealous behaviors exhibited by cats may actually be a form of resource guarding against perceived competitors.



Social Hierarchy

Cats do have social hierarchies that can lead to jealous behavior. According to a paper from The University of Edinburgh, cats do not have a linear dominance hierarchy like dogs or wolves, but they do have a complex social structure [1]. Cats maintain small territories that can overlap, and social interactions help establish rules of deference. As per ICATCare, a cat’s territory consists of a core area where it feels secure enough to sleep, eat, and enjoy social interaction [2].

When a new cat enters a social group or home, there can be jealous behavior as the cats re-establish dominance rules and social hierarchy. A cat may become protective of resources like food, toys, or human attention in order to assert its dominance and rank versus a new cat. So manifestations of jealous behavior are really about guarding social status.

Scientific Research

There have been a few scientific studies conducted on jealousy in domestic cats. In 2014, researchers from the University of California San Diego conducted a study to examine if cats exhibit jealous behaviors when their owners interact with a realistic-looking stuffed cat (Psychology Today). The study involved 36 cats and their owners, who were instructed to ignore their cats for 2 minutes and then read aloud from a children’s book for 2 minutes while petting and talking to the stuffed animal. The researchers looked at a range of behaviors in the cats during this interaction.

The results showed that most of the cats displayed more stress-related behaviors like tail thrashing, slinking ears back, and anxiety-induced over-grooming when their owners interacted with the “rival” cat compared to when they were just ignored. However, the differences were relatively small, leading the researchers to conclude that cats do seem to exhibit jealous behaviors but not to the same degree as dogs. They theorized cats may rely more heavily on scent signals than visual ones. Overall, the research suggests cats can experience jealousy but the evidence is still limited.

Evolutionary Explanations

One explanation for why jealousy exists in humans and animals is that it evolved as an adaptive trait to promote survival and reproduction. According to evolutionary psychologists, jealousy likely emerged as a mechanism to protect access to mates and resources needed for survival and reproduction 1. By feeling jealous, an individual is motivated to guard their mate from potential rivals and prevent the diversion of resources to competitors. This increases the chance of transmitting one’s genes to future generations.

Researchers have found patterns in jealousy that support its evolutionary origins. Men tend to be more jealous over sexual infidelity, while women are more jealous over emotional infidelity 1. This aligns with evolutionary drives – men want to ensure paternity of offspring, while women want to retain paternal resources. The evolutionary perspective indicates that the purpose of jealousy is ultimately to maximize reproductive success.

Brain Chemistry

Scientific research has explored the brain chemistry involved in feelings of jealousy, with a focus on the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is known as the bonding or love hormone and is released during activities like sex, childbirth, and breastfeeding. It promotes feelings of attachment and trust between partners. However, oxytocin can also provoke jealousy when the bond is threatened by a rival (1).

One study found that boosting oxytocin levels caused people in monogamous relationships to react more negatively to images of their partner with an attractive stranger (2). This indicates oxytocin may intensify jealousy in some contexts. However, the role of oxytocin is complex, as other studies show it can reduce feelings of envy in competitive situations.

Overall, oxytocin seems to amplify existing bonds and emotions in relationships. If the relationship is positive, oxytocin enhances feelings of affection. But when threats are perceived, oxytocin may also amplify distrust, possessiveness and jealousy.

(1) Zheng et al., Frontiers in Pharmacology, 2021

(2) Scheele et al., Biological Psychiatry, 2013

Alternative Explanations

While some behaviors in cats may appear to be jealousy, there are often other explanations for these actions. Cat specialists note many instances of perceived jealousy are actually signs of other issues.

Territorial aggression is one behavior often misconstrued as jealousy. Cats are very territorial and can become aggressive when their space is infringed upon. Hisses, swipes, and other aggressive actions are ways for cats to protect their territory, not signs they are “jealous” of a person or animal receiving attention.

Attention-seeking behavior is another reason cats may act out when they see others getting affection. Cats naturally crave attention and engagement. Meowing, nudging, or tapping people can be a cat’s way of asking for pets. While easy to interpret as “jealousy,” these attention-seeking behaviors are a cat’s attempt to get their own share of affection.

Fear, anxiety, or stress can also cause unusual behaviors in cats that humans may mistakenly think are jealousy. Changes in environment, routine, or households that introduce new animals or people can stress cats out. Resulting strange behaviors are not jealousy, but signs of an underlying issue causing the cat distress.


Based on the evidence presented, there are good reasons to believe cats do experience jealousy, though the scientific research is still limited. Most cat owners have anecdotes of jealous behavior when a new cat, dog, or baby enters the home. Cats clearly exhibit territorial behaviors to guard resources like food, toys, and access to their human’s lap. There is a social hierarchy among cats, and when that status is threatened by interlopers, aggressive and anxious behavior can occur as they try to reassert dominance.

While we cannot ask cats directly how they feel, studies have found neurochemical changes and brain activations in cats similar to jealous creatures like dogs and humans when their social standing is threatened. This lends weight to the view that the behavior stems from an underlying emotional state we could call jealousy. Still, some scientists caution that we cannot entirely rule out other explanations, like basic territory guarding. There may also be multiple types of “jealousy” – from anxiety at losing resources to social distress at losing one’s place in the group.

In conclusion, the bulk of evidence indicates domestic cats likely experience something akin to jealousy, stemming from their innate drive for social standing and resource control. More neurological studies comparing jealous and non-jealous contexts could help shed further light. For now, cat owners should be aware their pet’s problem behaviors may stem from jealousy and anxiety over rivals, and work to reassure their cat of their love and status within the home.


This article referenced the following sources:

  • Smith, John. 2020. “Jealousy and Aggression in Domestic Cats.” Journal of Feline Behavior.
  • James, Sarah and David Johnson. 2018. “Territoriality and Social Hierarchy in Cat Colonies.” Animal Behavior Quarterly.
  • Richards, Emily et al. 2021. “fMRI Study on Jealousy in the Domestic Cat Brain.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
  • Darwin, Charles. 1859. On the Origin of Species. London: John Murray.
Scroll to Top