Can Cats Recognise Emotions in Humans?

You could extend the question in the title to: Can cats recognise emotions in humans and recognise the facial expression that goes with those emotions?

Cat and dog and owner

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This apparently is what dogs can do and I think that cats can also do it but to a lesser extent because they have been domesticated for a much shorter time than domestic dogs (and are solitary rather than group-living animals). Dogs have been domesticated for about 30,000 years while cats, as we know, have been domesticated for around 10,000 years. It is therefore only a question of time, I would argue, before cats have the same nuanced approach to human emotions that dogs currently have.

A study carried out by scientists at the universities of Lincoln and San Paolo clearly indicates that dogs truly recognise emotions in humans and other dogs. They also are able to pick up nuances in their master’s voice and match those nuanced emotions to the facial expression of the person. So, for example, when a dog’s master cries the dog may pad up to the person to see what is wrong. If the person yawns, the dog yawns. Dogs are instinctively reading human emotions.

The scientists concluded that the dogs appear to have “cognitive abilities not known to exist beyond humans”.

The PhD student, Natalia Albuquerque, who led the study said that it was the first firm evidence that dogs could not only discriminate between their owner’s facial expressions but also link emotional signals from different senses in a way which implies, “abstract recognition”.

“Being able to appropriately respond to our task means that the dogs heard the sound and then they were looking at the corresponding image.” (Natalia Albuquerque)

The dogs received no prior training. Turning to cats, my experience in looking after a cat for many years is that my cat also understands my emotions through the tone of my voice and quite possibly (although I can’t confirm this) my facial expression. For example, I know that he understands when I’m annoyed by something he is doing and he will stop doing it. He understands my pleasure at seeing him on my return home and it is reciprocated.

I’m sure that many cat owners have similar experiences of their cat being in tune with their mood. I have read about this numerous times from visitors to my website. Of course this is anecdotal evidence and perhaps a study should be carried out on this because the dog seems to get first preference when it comes to studies of this sort. Perhaps this is because dogs are easier to study.

However, it is nice to see these studies being carried out because people are gradually learning that animals including domestic dogs and cats are more intelligent than people once believed. They have greater cognitive abilities than people have until recently given them credit for.

The study referred to is important because it is the first to propose that there is more to a dog’s behaviour when interacting with humans than what is called “simple pattern recognition”. I believe this to mean that it was once believed that dogs or cats simply responded to patterns of behaviour rather than being tuned in to the emotions of the human. The authors of the study say that dogs must have a “mental template for human feelings”. This would seem to me that they have an archive of human emotions in their memory which they can match up to what is happening before them.

I would like cats to be included more in this type of study because, as mentioned, I think science will confirm what dedicated cat caretakers have known for a long time, namely that the domestic cat has similar abilities but perhaps slightly less developed due to a shorter history of domestication and their inherently solitary nature.

Do you have any examples of your cat responding to your emotions?

Associated: Cats are aware of our needs.

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4 thoughts on “Can Cats Recognise Emotions in Humans?”

  1. Michael, yes, I do believe cats recognize human emotions. I agree with Gail’s post as well. Mine will *hover* around me constantly when I am sad or ill. And they do know when I am upset with them. I just have to look at them and say *stop it* in a slightly raised tone of voice, and they know I mean business and stop whatever they are doing — they also know *my look* as well. . . ♥♥♥

  2. I know my cats are in tune with my emotional distress – it has happened a few times over the years… I think it also depends on the particular cats purrsonality and your relationship with them. Some cats just don’t really care “) Others do.

    • As you say, I am sure the person has something to do with it. When the relationship is really close it is more likely that the cat will be in tune with that person’s feelings.

  3. Fascinating article. I also believe cats are in tune with their people providing their people take the time to interact. Personally, my own cats are very in tune with my emotions, voice and facial expressions. Last week, due to a death in the family, I was out on bereavement and spent (3) days at home with “the blues.” During the entire time, my cats never left my side except to use the litter box and eat. Although not best friends with each other, both sat (one on each side) next to me in bed. When I cried, each of them extended their paw to my hands/arms.

    When the 2nd cat joined our family, the 1st one was none too pleased and had a habit of picking on him. Eventually, he stuck up for himself and the (2) of them started scrapping. One day, I merely raised my voice a tad (never yell) and said sternly: “That is enough! I am bigger than you are and I’m fed up! Knock it off!” OMG, you would’ve thought their backsides were on fire. Not only did they freeze in their tracks, they gave me a wide berth and were BFFs from then to the present, LOL!

    They also recognize “the look” when they’re slapping at each other. Normally, I don’t bother; they’ve got to figure it out for themselves. On the odd occasion, they begin to amp up, I give them the raised eyebrow look. I think between the facial expression and the vibe being given, I truly believe both of my little miscreants recognize that their behavior is unacceptable and stop.


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