Are cats sensitive to human emotions?

Are cats sensitive to human emotions? Insofar as human emotions affect body language, “most cats are extraordinarily sensitive to human body language, much more so than they usually receive credit for”. The quote comes from Dr. John Bradshaw in his book Cat Sense. He believes that cats are sensitive to human emotions when emotions are expressed in body language which they pretty well always are. Often too human emotions are expressed vocally and in behavioural changes. Cats pick up these changes and vocalisations.

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He believes that their sensitivity allows cats to adapt their behaviour to the people they meet. I would hope that everyone who lives with a domestic cat has an experience which confirms this observation by Dr. Bradshaw. It’s quite hard to be precise on this topic because human body language may be quite subtle and the cat’s reaction in detecting that body language may also be subtle. It is tricky to provide a clean answer.

I know that when I am angry (rarely, thankfully) my cat picks it up because he will not be quite so keen to sit on my lap or lie on my legs et cetera. He will tend to stay away a bit more than usual. Usually, he nearly always comes to me looking for contact and an emotional connection which I welcome. My personal experience supports Bradshaw’s.

Dr. Bradshaw carried out an experiment to see whether cats avoid people who dislike them such as people who are cat-phobic. He states that people who dislike cats often complain that they are the first person in the room a cat makes a beeline for, to use his words. He decided to test this theory. Incidentally, he could only find men who disliked cats. No woman he approached admitted to hating cats.

The cat haters were instructed to sit on a couch and not move when a cat came into the room. He reported that the cats “seemed to sense the disposition of the people they were meeting within a few seconds of entering the room. They rarely approached the cat-phobics, preferring to sit near the door and look away from them.”

He’s not sure how the cats detected the difference between the man who hated cats and those that didn’t. He suggests that they might be able to sense that the cat-phobics were more tense or that they glanced nervously at the cats or even that they smelled differently. He concluded that the cat’s reactions indicated that they can be “keenly perceptive when encountering someone for the first time.”

Not all the cats behaved in the same way because one of the eight involved behaved in an opposite manner in singling out the cat-phobic to give him the most attention, even jumping on their lap and purring loudly. This is not a science. Perhaps cats are able to get a gut feeling about somebody by the demeanour just like humans.

But, to return to the question in the title as to whether cats are sensitive to human emotions, if those emotions are suppressed as they often are then I don’t think a cat can be sensitive to them. But perhaps it is fair to say that even subtle differences in demeanour and behaviour due to the person’s emotional state, can be detected by a domestic cat.

A factor may be the closeness, at an emotional level, between cat and human. When the relationship is close there will inevitably be a merging of the routines between cat and human. They will interact regularly throughout the day. Cats can pick up on a change in routine and that change may be due to the emotional state of the person. For example, he or she might be far more passive and not wish to go outside. That will feel unusual for a cat who has routinely been able to go outside with their owner.

The point here is that emotions are expressed in various ways including behaviour through routines and habits and there’s no doubt in my mind that domestic cats can be affected by changes like this. We all know about cats picking up on the fact that they are going to be taken to a veterinarian. They hide or tend to avoid the carrier even though you have hidden it somewhere. They tend to know something is afoot. I think that this is a demonstration of their sensitivity towards their human companion’s behaviour.

Please share your experiences on this topic as it would help us to understand feline behaviour.

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