When it comes to pets and affection, dogs get all the credit. They’re the ones with the wagging tails and slobbery kisses; the pets who jump in your arms when you come home from work and follow you around the house, begging to play.
Cats, on the other hand, are subtler. They can have the same affinity for their owners, they just show it in a different way. And for that, we can blame evolution.
“We have to remember cats and dogs are very different species,” said Dr. Jill Sackman, a clinician in behavioral medicine and senior medical director of BluePearl Veterinary Partners’ Michigan hospitals.
Dogs evolved to be more social, she said, because they’re used to working in packs. Our feline friends, however, are believed to have descended from the African wild cat. These are solitary animals who don’t hang out in groups outside the family unit.
It is also believed that today’s domestic cats think their human owners are actually other cats, albeit slightly bigger and weirder looking ones, Sackman says. Thus, they show their affection for us the same way they would for other members of their feline family.
So, how do you say “I love you” in cat? Here are eight ways cats show affection to their feline and human besties:
Exposing the abdomen is a sign of submission, says Dr. Rachel Barrack of New York City’s Animal Acupuncture. The cat is saying she feels completely comfortable in your presence. “This is the ultimate sign of cat trust,” Barrack says.
Exposing her belly might be a sign of your cat expressing her willingness to be vulnerable around you, but heads up: “the cat is not saying ‘please come scratch my belly’,” Sackman says.
Giving You “Presents”
“Cats are natural predators,” Barrack says. “If your indoor/outdoor cat brings you their kill, this is actually a feline love token. They are trying to share their prize with you.”
This is also a way cats in the wild show affection for each other, Sackman says. In the feline world, mothers will bring their babies half-dead animals so the kittens get a chance to practice their killing skills, she said.
In the wild, feline family units usually sleep together, Sackman says. So if your cat stays close, that’s a good sign she thinks of you as part of her clan.
“If your cat is lingering and spending time near you or touching you, this is their way of showing love,” Barrack says.
Maintaining Eye Contact and Blinking Slowly
Making eye contact with you and blinking slowly is often referred to as a “cat kiss,” Barrack says. It’s one way cats show trust and affection to each other and to you.
“It’s a way of saying ‘I’m relaxed and I’m comfortable in your presence,’” Sackman adds. “That’s a real compliment from a cat.”
Throughout their body, cats have scent glands that produce pheromones. These tiny molecules are like airborne messages for other cats, Barrack says. A mama cat might emit them when she’s nursing to soothe her kittens, or a scared cat might use them to alert others of possible danger. These pheromones are also one way cats tell each other: “this is mine.”
A large number of a cat’s pheromone producing glands are located in the cheeks and head, Barrack says, so when your cat greets you with a head butt or asks for a cheek rub, she’s showing both her affection for you and ownership.
“They’re marking their territory,” Sackman says. “They’re reestablishing their pheromones on you, but it’s very much a friendly behavior.”
Your cat’s tail movement is a good indicator of her mood as well, Barrack says. If she flicks the tip of her tail when you’re around, or wraps it around you, she’s saying, “hi, I like you.” The reason for this? Pheromones.
Cats also release these from parts of their tails, Sackman says, and may use them to mark you as part of her family.
Cats who are part of the same family group often groom each other, according to Sackman.
“If your cat licks you, they are grooming you just like a mother does to her kittens,” Barrack adds. “This is another one of their ways of showing love.”
On a social level, the strongest bond between cats is the relationship between a mother and her kittens, Sackman says. It’s believed that kittens purr as a signal to their mothers to stay still and feed them, she adds, and the act of kneading her belly while they’re nursing may help keep the milk flowing.
So, if your cat starts purring and kneading you, consider it a compliment. “A cat kneading and rubbing up against you is their way of treating you like another cat,” Sackman said.
Of course, it also helps them mark their territory, she said, as cats can release those much-discussed pheromones from their paws.
Helen Anne Travis is a freelance writer based in Tampa, FL. She also writes for CNN, The Guardian and The Globe and Mail.