By Andrea Carne
A friend gave me a coffee cup some time ago which reads, “Cats know how you feel…they don’t care, but they know.” Well, recent research reveals that such comical turns of phrase are untrue. Not only can cats perceive our emotional state, but they will react accordingly through their own stress levels.
Before getting into the nitty gritty of research findings, however, let’s begin by looking in general at cats and emotion. I mean, despite what some choose to believe (including, perhaps, the creator of my coffee cup’s slogan), but what many cat guardians already know: cats do have feelings. Of course they do!
Observation of cats across a multitude of research studies shows they frequently monitor their environment, evaluating what’s around them and adjusting their responses to suit. Those responses are influenced by their emotional systems.
If we take the definition of an emotion as “a strong feeling deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others” (Lexico, 2020), there’s no way we can deny that cats have emotional responses to situations and therefore experience emotions – or feelings – as drivers of that response.
That’s not to say feline emotions are the same as those of humans. Cat emotions are generally grouped into positive or negative. On the positive side, we know they feel things like pleasure, comfort, relaxation, lust, and playfulness.
On the negative side, we know they feel things like fear, anxiety, frustration, panic, pain, and grief. And we also know they can feel more than one emotion at once – for example, they may be feeling pain, but also frustration that the pain is stopping them from achieving something, such as scratching an itch.
So, yes, cats have emotions. But do we know if they can interpret the emotions of others, specifically humans?
This is where the recent research comes in. Previous studies, including the 2016 project by Galvan and Vonk, have already shown us that cats are sensitive to the emotions of humans (particularly their owners). But now, thanks to a group of Italian researchers at the University of Bari, led by Angelo Quaranta, we know even more.
The group’s paper concludes that our feline friends not only recognize certain human emotions, but also respond via their own stress levels, pointing to a higher level of emotional understanding and reaction than was previously realized.
In short, the study by Quaranta et al. (2020) looked at how cats perceived acoustic and visual signals from humans and other cats, and their ability to match those signals with the corresponding emotions.
The cats involved with the study were presented with visual pictures of cats and humans showing negative and positive emotional states, as well as corresponding audio for the emotions pictured (for the cats, a hiss and a purr; for the humans, a laugh and a growl).
The cats’ preference to look at different emotional stimuli and their subsequent display of behaviors related to stress/anxiety were observed and recorded. The results showed the cats displayed more stress-related behavior when exposed to the negative emotional stimuli (the cat hiss and the human anger) than to all other stimuli.
This would support the theory that cats become stressed or anxious when exposed to negative emotions: “Our results demonstrate that cats integrate visual and auditory signals to recognize human and conspecific [same species] emotions and they appear to modulate their behavior according to the valence of the emotion perceived.” (Quaranta et al., 2020).
But the study goes further than that, particularly with regards to cats and their relationships with humans.
Unlike previous studies (including Pongracz et al., 2018), the Italian project supports a new train of thought regarding cats’ generalization of interpreting human emotions. In other words, cats seemingly have the ability to perceive and act upon the emotional states of all humans, not just those they are familiar with.
This conclusion was drawn from the fact that the cats in the University of Bari study were responding to pictures and audio of humans not known to them.
“We found that cats are able to recognize and interpret unfamiliar human emotional signals, suggesting that they have a general mental representation of humans and their emotions. This cognitive representation, therefore, is pre-existing and not affected by individual lifetime experiences with humans.” (Quaranta et al. 2020).
This points to our feline friends being far more emotionally aware of humans in general than we ever really knew. It would be of no surprise to cat lovers that their cats are in tune with their emotional states, but this study hypothesizes that cats have this ability with or without a bond with the human.
“Therefore, it is possible that during domestication, cats developed socio-cognitive abilities for understanding human emotions in order to respond appropriately to their communicative signals.” (Quaranta et al. 2020).
Why is this important? Well, for one, while only involving a small group of cats (10), the study increases our knowledge of our feline friends and their behavior, and that is important on its own. It also encourages further, more widescale research in the area.
It is safe to say that research into cat behavior of any kind is lagging well behind that involving dogs, but this is slowly changing.
After all, it is clear from various studies (including the recent one by Lawson et al. (2019) cited in my previous article (see The Power of Choice, BARKS from the Guild, May 2020, pp.54-56), that the average cat guardian claims to have a good understanding of cat behavior when they perhaps don’t know as much as they think.
Gaps in knowledge can lead to stress in their feline companions and ultimately the issues cat behavior consultants are called upon to solve.
Any research that helps us better understand how the feline mind works and how cats present those thought processes in behavior should therefore be welcomed with open arms. If nothing else, it helps provide us with the scientific evidence to support the work that we do in solving behavior issues.
And a large part of that is client education.
If we can help make our clients realize that their feline companions not only can perceive their emotions but that they get stressed when those emotions are negative, we have a hook to helping them use positivity in their human-cat relationships.
We know cats are sending us messages all the time – through overt and more subtle body language and other behavioral signals – but we need to remember that we are also sending them messages. It’s important we ensure those messages are positive wherever possible.
A cat that not only has all of his environmental and health needs met, but also enjoys a positive emotional relationship with his human is in the best place for a long and happy life.
Carne, A. (2020, May). The Power of Choice. BARKS from the Guild (42) 54-56
This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, November 2020, pp.38-39. Read the full article Once More, with Feeling.
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About the Author
Andrea Carne is a graduate of the University of Southern Queensland, Australia where she majored in journalism and drama before, later in life, following her dream to work in the field of animal behavior. She is a qualified veterinary nurse and dog trainer and member of PPG Australia. Her special area of interest is cat behavior and her passion for it led to the establishment of her own cat behavior consultancy Cattitude, based in southern Tasmania, through which she offers private in-home consultations.