If you’ve snuggled up with your cat, you’ve likely looked down at him with affection and planted a kiss on his head. It’s a very endearing gesture, at least in the human world. But cats perceive actions like this a bit differently than humans do. A kiss to them means something entirely different than it does to their owners.
That doesn’t mean, however, that cats don’t have love for their humans. It’s a common misconception, in fact, that dogs are affectionate and cats are indifferent. Purring, giving you a lick, rubbing their cheek on you, slowly blinking, or cuddling up with their pet parents are just a few of the ways in which cats show approval of their human companions.
But when it really comes down to it: do cats like kisses? Let’s hear what the experts say!
Do Cats Like Kisses?
“Some cats may enjoy kisses, some may learn to tolerate them well, and some cats may not enjoy kisses,” explains cat behavior expert Samantha Bell. But in reality, she notes, it’s more that they tolerate a cat kiss than specifically enjoy it.
The reason for this, she says, is really interesting. Humans associate love and affection with physical contact: touching, holding, hugging, etc. But cats do not.
“Domestic cats today still retain some of their wild instincts that could cause them to feel like prey when they’re being touched, held, or hugged,” Bell explains. In the wild, the only time a cat would be restrained is when a predator has them in their clutches. Thus, Bells says we don’t want to force anything upon our cats that could trigger this instinct and make them feel like prey.
The best way to demonstrate your cat love and affection, per Bell, is by giving them choices and letting them call the shots. “You can put your face near your cat, and if they choose to rub on it or kiss it, they’re showing you that it’s something they enjoy!” she explains.
And when it comes down to whether or not a cat will tolerate you planting a kiss on top of its head definitely depends on the cat.
”I have three very affectionate cats, and if I put my face near two of them, they will ‘kiss’ (lick) it, and the other will politely move away,” she explains. “They all love me so much, but they just each have their own personality.” Also, Bell jokes that the reason her cats are licking her could simply be that she’s a little sweaty or that her face lotion tastes interesting—not necessarily due to affection at all.
Do Cats Understand Kisses?
“I definitely think cats can sense our intentions and can feel our love for them,” says Bell. “But I don’t think they understand that when we stick our face in their face and proceed to put our lips on them that that is a kiss and a kiss is a way we show affection.” Thus, understanding the reason why we kiss our cats is far above their emotional abilities.
It’s fun to assign human characteristics to cats, but, in the end, this is a partially-wild animal living in your home, trying to adjust to our human way of life, says Bell. She adds that cats’ brains work differently from ours. “They are very smart, just in different ways from us.”
After a few times of kissing a cat, he may come to understand that harm does not come from this, and some may learn to tolerate it or even enjoy it, especially if you reward them for these interactions. But cats won’t fully grasp our affectionate goal of kissing them.
“They don’t understand that kisses are the human way of showing how much we love them,” says Bell
When NOT to Kiss a Cat
If kissing is a way that you express affection with pets, it’s important to keep in mind there are some situations where you just shouldn’t do it with your feline friend. Here are times when you should avoid kissing a cat.
Your Cat is New to Your Home
Bell recommends avoiding kissing a cat when they’re new in your home. “You want to build trust with them by really letting them call the shots and not forcing yourself on them at all,” she says.
Your Cat is Stressed or Scared
She also recommends avoiding kissing a cat that’s in a stressed or scared state or in a super playful state where they’re in bitey/scratchy/wild-mode. And you want to take into consideration any special needs they have too. “I have a deaf cat who sleeps very soundly, and if I were to kiss him while he was asleep it would really startle him,” she explains.
They’re Giving Body Language Cues
Cats tell us a lot with their body language and it’s extremely helpful for us to learn how to translate what they’re saying. Bell says to pay attention to your cat’s ears, eyes and tail to start.
“Ears in a relaxed, neutral position, pupils neither dilated or constricted, and tail either still or gently moving all show that a cat is likely feeling calm and comfortable, a good time to kiss them,” she says. “Turned or flat ears, dilated or constricted pupils, and a thrashing tail all indicate that a cat’s not feeling calm and may not react well to a kiss at this time.” In that instance, her answer to “do cats like it when you kiss them?” would definitely be no!
How Do Cats Show Affection?
While smooching is not a norm in cat culture, felines definitely show their affection for their humans in other ways. And when asked “do cats know you love them?” Bell says yes. She explains that cats do “kiss back,” but they do it with their eyes.
“When a cat is feeling nervous or stressed in their environment, they keep their eyes wide open so they can gather as much information as they can to stay safe from harm,” she says. “But when a cat trusts their environment, they’re able to relax and close their eyes a little bit.” So if you look at your cat and squint and close your eyes, you’re sending the message to them that this is a safe environment. By doing this, you’re saying, “I trust this environment and don’t need to be on the lookout. I trust you so much.“
And this, says Bell, may encourage your cat to do the same thing back to you. “If they do, consider it a kiss from them!” she proclaims.
Cats show familiarity and comfort with other cats by rubbing on them. So if you put your hand out and your cat rubs on your hand or head butts you, Bell says, that is them telling you they’re comfortable around you and accept you as part of the group. “And if you sit down and your cat comes and sits near you or on you, that is definitely them showing that they trust you and enjoy your company,” she explains.
These are all ways our cats show “love” to us in their own language.
Other Ways You Can Show Cats You Love Them
The good news for cat owners is that there are many wonderful ways you can show your cat you love them aside from a cat kiss. One method, says Bell, is to give them choices and control over their lives and to not force anything upon them.
“Another fantastic way is through interactive playtime with a wand toy (a fishing pole/stick that has a toy that resembles their prey at the end of a wire),” she says. Cats were born to hunt and catch prey. If you give them the opportunity to feel like a predator, per Bell, you will see your cat’s confidence increase, their stress levels go down, and your bond with them grow stronger. Kicker fish toys can also stimulate their prey drive.
Bell suggests making playtime a part of enriching their five senses to show your cat you really love them. “Think of each sense and what a wild cat would love to experience through that sense, and try to find a way to bring that indoors for your cat,” she says.
For example, you can enrich their senses of sight and hearing with bird or mouse videos you can find on YouTube. Then, play with them with a wand toy so they can “hunt” that bird or mouse they just saw. End the play session with a special treat so they feel like they caught and ate their prey. “They will feel so satisfied and love you so much for giving them that experience,” Bell explains.