Do Cats and Dogs Really Feel Love? The Surprising Science Behind Pet Emotions


It was the hardest day of my life. As I held my cat Mittens in my arms while the veterinarian prepared for his final injection, I looked into his eyes filled with fear and confusion. Although he couldn’t speak, his eyes seemed to ask why I was letting this happen to him. I had raised Mittens since he was a kitten, and over the years he had become so much more than just a pet. He was my companion, my baby, my best friend. The depth of sorrow I felt having to say goodbye surprised even me, and made me wonder – do our furry friends truly feel love for us the way we do for them?

The parental-like bond between humans and pets is familiar to all animal lovers. But does it go beyond mere attachment and familiarity? Can pets feel the complex emotion of love? Understanding if and how our furry companions experience love not only sheds light on the animal mind, but helps explain the profound grief we feel when they pass away.

Defining Love in Animals

Love can be defined in many ways when it comes to animals. Some key concepts include:

Pair bonding: Forming a close, affectionate relationship between mates. Species like prairie voles form lifelong monogamous bonds and show signs of distress when separated (

Attachment: Forming a bond and reciprocal affection with another being. Dogs often form attachments with their owners.

Altruism: Selfless caring and protection for another. Dolphins have been known to help injured dolphins survive by bringing them food and protecting them from predators.

Empathy: The ability to understand the emotions of others. Chimpanzees may console and kiss distressed chimps, showing empathy.

Grief: Experiencing sorrow when a loved one dies. Many social animals like elephants grieve deeply when their mate or child passes away.

So while animal emotions may be different from human ones, research shows they can still form meaningful bonds of care, affection, and love.

Social Bonding Behaviors

There is substantial evidence that dogs and cats exhibit bonding and attachment behaviors towards their human caregivers, similar to the ways human infants attach to their parents. Research shows that like infants, dogs show distress when separated from owners and excitement when reunited, demonstrating a strong social bond (Hawkins, 2017). Cats also display secure attachment behaviors such as rubbing, kneading, purring, and vocalizing directed at their owners (Lass-Hennemann, 2022). These behaviors release oxytocin in both pets and owners, facilitating a mutually trusting relationship.

One study found that the majority of dogs exhibited proximity-seeking behaviors toward their owner and source of security when frightened by loud noises (Hawkins, 2017). Dogs also demonstrate excitatory greetings when owners return after absences. Cats may show attachment through increased vocalizing behavior and searching when separated from their owner (Lass-Hennemann, 2022). Overall, research indicates dogs and cats form social bonds and display attachment behaviors similar to human children and their caregivers.

Brain Chemistry of Bonding

Research has shown that when dogs and cats interact positively with their owners, such as through cuddling and play, they exhibit increased levels of the hormone oxytocin in their brains, similar to what is seen in human bonding behaviors. One study found that when owners interacted and played with their dogs, both the humans’ and dogs’ oxytocin levels increased while cortisol (stress hormone) levels decreased (Petersson, 2017). Higher oxytocin levels in dogs are associated with more affectionate behaviors and positive temperament. Another study showed that when dogs and owners gazed at each other for extended periods, both of their oxytocin levels increased. This research indicates dogs form strong social bonds with their owners similar to parent-child bonds in humans, mediated through oxytocin signaling pathways (Marshall-Pescini et al., 2019).

Signs of Distress When Separated

Dogs and cats can exhibit signs of distress and anxiety when separated from their owners. Some common symptoms of separation anxiety include excessive vocalization like barking or meowing, destructive behaviors like chewing or scratching, inappropriate urination or defecation, depression, and more (ASPCA). This anxiety stems from the strong social bond formed between pets and their owners.

Dogs that are especially attached to their owners may start displaying separation anxiety behaviors within minutes of being left alone. They may bark, whine, pace, drool excessively, or engage in destructive behaviors. Cats that have separation anxiety may meow loudly, urinate outside their litter box, overgroom, or become depressed. These behaviors come from a place of fear and distress when separated from their preferred human companion (VCA Hospitals).

The strength of the pet’s attachment can be seen in how intensely they react to isolation from their owner. The anxiety only manifests when separated specifically from that person. Some pets even exhibit symptoms at night if the owner is in a different room. Separation anxiety behaviors tend to escalate the longer the pet is left alone.

Lifelong Bond Formation

It is well known that the attachments formed between pets and owners in early life lead to lifelong bonds ( This is especially true for dogs, who undergo a critical socialization period as puppies when they form strong attachments with their care providers. Imprinting that occurs during this time leads to an enduring affiliation that lasts for the dog’s lifetime.

Research shows that the oxytocin released when puppies bond with their owners causes a lifelong social affiliation ( This hormone plays a key role in attachment and trust. The attachments formed in puppyhood affect the dog’s ability to cope with stress and form relationships throughout life.

Even dogs adopted as adults tend to form immediate bonds with their new owners. However, the strength and exclusivity of the attachment is strongest when imprinting occurs during the critical development stages of puppyhood. Dogs imprinted as puppies often bond very intensely with their owners and can exhibit distress when separated for long periods of time.

In summary, the lifelong nature of early imprinting in dogs demonstrates the profound emotional capacity dogs have to form meaningful social relationships with human caregivers.

Individual Personality Differences

Some cats and dogs are more prone to developing deep bonds with their owners than others based on their individual personalities. A study found that pets with an anxious attachment style were linked to owners high in neuroticism and poor mental well-being ( This suggests that certain pets may be more inclined to form strong attachments and separation anxiety, perhaps due to their innate temperament. Anxiously attached pets showed more distress when separated from owners and stuck close by when the owner was present.

In contrast, securely attached pets were more confident, less stressed by separations, and able to comfortably explore on their own. These personality differences likely have biological roots, as genetics play a significant role in attachment styles. Just as some people tend to form closer bonds in relationships, some pets’ temperaments make them prone to stronger bonding and love for their caretakers. However, early life experiences and the quality of care they receive can also influence attachment security over time.

Protective Behaviors

Many dog and cat owners have stories of how their pets protected them in times of distress or danger. Dogs in particular have strong protective instincts due to their territorial nature and pack mentality. There are clear signs when a dog is being protective versus aggressive including barking, growling, or standing between their owner and the perceived threat (source). Some dogs will try to herd their owners away from the danger or block them from approaching.

Cats can also display protective behaviors like hissing, swatting, or standing with an arched back between their owner and a threat. There are many anecdotes of pets alerting owners to fires, intruders, health crises, and other dangers by making a ruckus or physically intervening. This suggests pets are attuned to changes in their owners’ bodies and environments that could pose a risk.

While protective behaviors stem from natural instincts in some breeds, they also reflect the strong social bond between owners and pets. The willingness to confront perceived threats demonstrates pets are emotionally invested in their owners’ safety and wellbeing (source). Protectiveness is a sign of attachment and affection in animal relationships.

Grieving When Owners Pass Away

When a beloved owner passes away, dogs and cats can show signs of grieving similar to humans. They may seem depressed, lethargic, have a reduced appetite, and show less interest in normal activities. Some signs a pet is grieving the loss of their owner include:

  • Changes in sleep patterns – sleeping more than usual or having difficulty sleeping
  • Changes in eating patterns – refusing food or eating less than normal
  • Being less active and playful
  • Withdrawing from social interactions with other pets or people
  • Excessive vocalizations like whining, barking or meowing
  • Destructive behaviors like chewing or soiling in the house
  • Searching behaviors – looking for the deceased owner around the home
  • Clinging behaviors – following remaining family members closely

These behaviors can persist anywhere from a few days to weeks as the pet adjusts and accepts the loss. Remaining patient, providing extra love and attention, keeping normal routines, and using calming aids can help grieving pets. If signs persist beyond a month, consulting a vet is advisable.

According to the American Kennel Club, the strength of the bond with the deceased owner influences how intensely a dog grieves their loss. Dogs form strong social attachments and the loss of an owner to whom they were closely bonded can be distressing. However, dogs’ resilience allows most to adjust with time and care.


The evidence clearly shows that dogs and cats have the capacity to form deep, loving bonds with their human owners that go far beyond a simple unconditional trust that is seen between many pets and owners. Their social bonding behaviors, brain chemistry changes, signs of distress when separated, ability to form lifelong bonds, individual personality differences in sociability, and protective behaviors all point to pets viewing their owners as companions and family members, not just caregivers. The profound grief that dogs and cats often display when their owners pass away further indicates these pets felt a mutual love and attachment.

While the love pets feel may not be identical to complex human emotions, research suggests our furry friends do experience their own version of love. The social attachment system in mammalian brains that compels us to bond with partners and offspring seems to get activated between owners and pets as well. For any devoted pet owner who feels their dog or cat truly loves them back, science appears to back that up.

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