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Do cats feel love?

There are 25.5 million pets in Canada, and we're spending more on them than ever before. These stories explore how the animals among us are shaping us all.

Willa and Carson were sisters who seemed to adore one another wholeheartedly. The two Siamese cats groomed and cuddled with each other, often falling asleep pressed together "like the joined wings of a butterfly." When Carson finally succumbed to old age at 14, Willa began "acting bizarrely," according to her owner, Karen. The cat would prowl the house restlessly, searching the old spots the sisters used to share, and making wild sounds her owner had never heard before – "keening," is how Karen describes it.

Was the cat merely disoriented by an interruption to her daily routine, or was this really a lamentation for the dead? Barbara King is sure it's the latter. A professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., and a lifelong observer of animals, including years spent studying monkeys and apes in Kenya and the United States, she doesn't shy from anthropomorphizing. In her latest book, How Animals Grieve, she broadens her focus from monkeys to bison to dolphins to house pets, and makes the case that animals feel deeply in ways that we humans might not perceive – or perhaps find it easier not to.

In the book, you mention that grief is the flip side of love. So, can you be sure animals love?

We shouldn't be so terribly afraid of the word "anthropomorphism." Anthropomorphism means that we're projecting our feelings on other animals. And that itself is something to be careful of, but the way to handle it is to look very carefully at what the animal is doing over a period of time. If you see two animals clearly vital to each other's well-being over a long period of time, such that one is thrown into physical and emotional disarray if there's separation, I feel very comfortable calling that love. In other words, it's not as if I would ever accept that term without a period of very close, careful, thoughtful and critical observation.

Why has the scientific community been resistant to anthropomorphism?

That's a question I think about a lot. In part, it's because it impacts how we treat animals. To really sit there and think about the fact that, let's say, a dairy cow who is at a factory farm and has her offspring taken away repeatedly to slaughter might be feeling something about that, or a chimpanzee kept in a biomedical lab who sees his friends and companions in next-door cages being knocked down repeatedly, maybe killed by these procedures – they're in anguish. We're implicated in what we eat, or how we go about our entertainment. I think that's hard for everybody, and I include myself.

What's your viewpoint on our society's relationship to animals?

There's this, I think, minority, but maybe significant cultural move toward really spoiling our pets. Spending tons of money on gourmet foods or spas for them or vacations or clothing – that is a little bit strange and disturbing when you put that up against how we're treating other animals. Things we would never ask our animals to do, we ask other animals to do.

I've been known myself to throw a pretty cool cat birthday party now and again, with wrapped presents, catnip and food for the human guests. What becomes harmful is when the animal is not seen for who he or she is – a cat, a dog, a rabbit with a certain individual personality and set of needs that are quite different from a human's set of needs. Our pets are not us, and it does them a disservice to try and mould them into us – in that way we miss the richness of living with and communicating with a creature for whom we have great responsibility and who has much to teach us about thinking and feeling in non-human ways.

There's evidence for pseudo-mystical occurrences like dog ESP. What's your take on that?

The best study was when there were cameras on a person when she would leave work or shopping, randomized to be at different times, and a camera on the dog. When the person would start out from her destination to home, the dog would seem to have an immediate response. And that is something I don't understand, but I do see as interesting.

Oscar is a nursing-home cat who predicts death with seniors in nursing homes. I do believe there will be a scientific explanation for this, whether it's breakdown of ketones from the body or some other thing. I don't believe that there's a mystical explanation, but I think that it means there's a very extraordinary cat doing this.

What are the broader cultural ramifications of actually believing that animals feel grief?

A lot of people, even dog owners, think of animals as being very tethered to immediacy. I would allow that animals are more like that than we are – I take care not to equate animal grief with human grief. But many, many animals have memory. They can have PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder], trauma. They can feel sorrow and die from their grief. And most pet owners really care, love and want to help their animals. So I get a lot of questions like, "What happens if we have one survivor pet in the house and one who's just died?" So at that level, that's one societal response. At another level, what do we do in zoos and sanctuaries when an animal dies? We're talking about the ability [of other animals] to spend time with the body, to honour the feelings of the survivors. And at a much greater level, again, thinking about who we eat, who we make perform for us. What we're doing to these animals who feel their lives.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said there are 14 million pets in Canada. In fact, there are 14 million dogs and cats and 25.5 million total pets when you include birds, fish, reptiles etc.

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