While it is certain that dogs can sense human emotions and offer support to their owners in times of need, cats are perceived as aloof and unconcerned about human affairs. However, cat lovers often attest that cats can empathize with their owners too. What does science say about this? Do cats know when you are sad? Do your emotions affect your kitty in any way?
Cats are similar to people in more ways than we know, and thanks to their superior senses of smell and sight, they are able to know what we are feeling. Their personality and other character traits keep them from reacting like a dog would—wagging his tail and licking his owner’s face to cheer him/her up in times of need—but when you think about it, humans express themselves in different ways too.
It is important to reach out and try to understand your cat better if you’d like to know your cat understands human emotions.
In this article, we will explain how cats can tell how you are feeling and in what way our mood swings affect their daily life. We will provide scientific evidence so there will be no more misunderstandings about a cat’s emotional capacity.
How are Cats Able to Sense Our Moods?
Many people perceive cats as cold-hearted, selfish, and uncaring. It is only recently that studies have confirmed what every cat owner already knew—cats feel the same emotions we do.
While felines are able to experience much of the same things people do, they aren’t able to analyze those emotions and deal with them as people can. It can also be hard figuring out what a cat is feeling at any given moment since their only means of communication with us is via body language.
However, one thing is clear: cats are more like us than we give them credit for, and because of these similarities, they can sense our moods.
It would be wrong to think that a cat isn’t able to feel anything simply because she chooses not to react to our emotional changes. Recent studies have found that besides changes in their behavior, there are also physiological clues that can shed some light on the feline ability to sense human emotions.
#1: Similar Brain Structure
A cat’s limbic system which is responsible for connecting emotions with a thought process works in a similar way with ours. It has many functions including emotion, memory, instincts, and motivation. In fact, it is so closely related to ours that scientists are working on an electronic stimulation of a cat’s brain to better understand our own.
Hence, it doesn’t come as a surprise that cats can feel and sense the emotions of people around them, just like us.
#2: Similar Emotional Range
Cats have similar neurological, genetic, and hormonal structure as we do. However, they aren’t able to feel all the range of emotions people do. Cats can express emotions like joy, anger, sadness, fear, anxiety, excitement, and pleasure, but they aren’t able to analyze them because they require abstract thought.
Still, every cat owner will tell you that a cat is capable of expressing abstract emotions like love and compassion, but in their own special way.
It is observed that cats, like people, express grief when they lose a mate, a child, or a long time feline or human friend. Some cats can become so withdraw and grief-stricken that they will refuse to eat or participate in any form of interactions, which is a behavior seen in people who mourn.
See Also: How to Help a Depressed Cat
On the other hand, some cats won’t show any signs of grief and will continue living like nothing happened, which causes some scientists to believe that cats, after all, aren’t capable of expressing emotions.
Still, it is important to remember that not all cats are the same, and ones that aren’t grieving most likely haven’t become attached to the departed companion that much. The same behavior is observed in people; some grieve where others aren’t affected by the loss, and no one ever suggested that they aren’t capable of feeling and expressing emotions.
When it comes to the range of emotions cats can express, it is important to remember that all cats are different and we can’t expect them to behave the same in all situations.
#3: Shared Environment
Sharing a living space with a cat gives her an opportunity to observe our behavior and how it impacts her livelihood. This may seem selfish, but we do the same every day—reading the moods of family members to figure out how they impact our needs.
Just like us, cats are the happiest when everyone around them is happy and will show their appreciation by head rubbing, purring, or curling in their owner’s lap. However, how a cat is going to react to our emotions depends largely on her personality and the relationship you have with her.
All cats can sense when their owners are sad, happy, or anxious, but not all of them will show the same amount of consideration. Some cats will try to cheer their owners by purring or jumping in his/her lap for a petting session, while others will remain unaffected and wonder if dinner will be on time.
While it is true that cats are connected to their owners and show concern, in some occasions, it isn’t clear if they do it purely for interest or if they are genuinely worried for their human roommates. Still, this may be one of many theories that try to portray cats like some selfish and uncaring creatures that aren’t capable of the same devotion and loyalty dogs are.
In the end, it is up to you to decide what you are going to believe; either your cat is using your emotions to acquire her next meal, or she is genuinely concerned for your well-being and wants to offer support.
Scientific Studies on Cats and Their Ability to Recognize Our Emotions
While there are plenty of studies that show that dogs have emotions and can discern how their owners are feeling, little has been done to answer the same questions regarding cats.
One theory suggests that dogs were domesticated long before cats, and had more time to learn how to react to our emotional gestures and offer affection and comfort when needed, leaving cats in a disadvantage at reading emotions.
Only recently, scientists discovered that cats have and are able to express emotions, and a new study now gives the proof that they are also able to discern human emotional gestures.
The few studies conducted to determine how cats react to emotional human gestures is already painting cats in a completely different light and proves that they can tell how we feel.
#1: A Cat’s Reaction to Human Facial Expressions
Two scientists, Moriah Galvin and Jennifer Vonk, wanted to see if cats can read human emotional gestures and how they react to them. They researched 12 cats and their owners and realized that cats behaved differently when their owner was smiling compared to frowning.
They concluded that when a cat is faced with a smiling owner, she was more likely to perform positive behaviors like purring, cuddling in the owner’s lap, or head rubbing. They also observed that cats were more inclined to spending time with a smiling owner compared to one that was frowning.
To confirm their suspicions after the first phase, instead of owners, the cats were introduced to strangers who were also divided into smiling and frowning groups. Still, during this phase, cats showed the same behavior as with their owners and were more inclined to show the same amount of positive behavior with smiling strangers as compared to those who frowned.
From this study, Galvin and Vonk concluded that cats are, in fact, able to read human facial expressions and that they obtained that ability over time. This study also shows that cats are interested in us and pay attention to their owners, contrary to the beliefs that suggest felines are indifferent.
These scientists also believe that it took so much time to figure out if cats react to us and our emotions because they use subtle body expressions. It was also noted that cats that were subjected to smiling owners also adapted certain body posture and ear and tail movements that suggested they were content.
These findings show that we need to learn how to read the subtle body language our cats are using to communicate with us to find out how they react to us and our emotions.
#2: A Cat’s Reaction to Human Gestures
In another research that was conducted by Isabella Merola at the University of Milan in Italy, 24 cats were studied to see if they use emotional information provided by their owners to guide their behavior.
The cats were put in a room with a screen at one end that also served as an exit and an electric fan that had green ribbons attached to it. Once a cat entered the room, an owner was asked to first watch the fan with a neutral expression, and then respond to it either possessively or negatively.
The owner was then asked to alternate his gaze between the fan and the cat and let her see his emotional reaction to it. In a positive group, owners were allowed to approach the fan, use a happy voice, and show happy expressions. In a negative group, owners were instructed to act fearful of the fan with matching expressions and tone of voice.
More than 79% of the cats looked between the owner and the fan at the beginning phase of the experiment while he still had a neutral expression. This same experiment was also conducted on dogs and showed that almost the same percentage of cats reacted to human emotional gestures when faced with an unfamiliar object.
Cats from the negative group were observed to spare more glances between the exit screen and the fan than the cats in the positive group. The screen was the only way out of that room, and cats looking at it show that they were contemplating ways on how to escape from the fan.
Furthermore, cats from the negative group started to move earlier than their counterparts from the positive group, which suggests that they started searching for an exit sooner.
This study clearly shows that cats can understand our feelings and can adjust their behavior according to it. Furthermore, this experiment shows that cats are affected by our emotions and that they use them to guide their actions and behaviors.
This means that our emotions affect our cats more than we realize, and your anxiety or stress can also get transferred to your cat without you realizing.
Cats can feel, react, and get affected by our emotions, but they don’t express those emotions the same way humans or dogs do. This doesn’t mean that cats are cold-hearted; it is just the result of their later domestication and our limited knowledge about this topic.
However, there are stories about cats who licked the tears on their owner’s faces when they were sad to offer comfort and improve their mood.
A few felines will greet their owners at the front door, and even though you can only expect a quick purr or leg rubbing before they head back out to the kitchen to demand their meal, this doesn’t mean that your cat isn’t glad to see you or that she doesn’t understand how happy you are to see her.
A few studies that have been conducted so far have started to portray cats in a different light. We’re sure that everyone who has ever lived with cats is already aware of how sensitive cats are to human emotions even without the backup of scientific studies.
In time, we hope that others will also see how much cats are truly in tune with their owners and that they aren’t uncaring at all.
Today, thanks to the newest studies into feline behavior, we start to understand that cats have emotions and can detect changes in ours. But do cats know when you are sad or happy? How can you tell?
All cats are aware of human emotions; some will react to them and offer support if you are feeling blue, while others won’t care as much. How your cat is going to react to your emotions is completely dependent on her personality and the bond between the two of you.
What does your cat do when you are sad? Do you think your mood changes have any effect on her? Share your story with us in the comments section below. If you’d like your cat to relate with you more, you should check out our article on how cats choose their favorite person.