Do cats pick up on human emotions?

Do cats pick up on human emotions? Yes.
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Do cats pick up on human emotions? Yes, certainly if it is the cat’s guardian (owner) who is interacting with the cat. This is because domestic cats learn, in their interactions with their owners, their body language including specifically their facial expressions. Of course human facial expressions and general body language are an outward sign of human emotion.

Cats respond to human emotion which is displayed through body language. Jackson Galaxy says that cats mirror their human companion’s energy.

For example, if you are fearful and tentative hovering over a cat, he/she will sense that you don’t trust them. If you are nervous and trying to pet a cat in a tentative manner he might respond ‘inappropriately’ by seeing a hand as prey and swat it.

It is best to approach a cat confidently (without being overly confident and intimidating) if you don’t know a cat well. Domestic cats feed off the positive energy. Jackson calls it ‘energetics’. If you approach with ‘stillness and calm’ a cat’s behaviour mirrors this attitude.

I would endorse this advice. A close female friend of mind is nervous of my cat, Gabriel, and she risks getting scratched by her apprehensive approach and tentative hand movements.

Moriah Galvan and Jennifer Vonk of Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan carried out a study of 12 cats and their owners.

The found that cats respond to frowns and smiles differently. When their owners smiled, their cat responded more positively by purring, rubbing or sitting on their lap. They were also keener to spend more time with their owner compared to when they frowned.

They also found that cats did not respond in the same way when strangers smiled or frowned. Smiling or frowning made no difference to their behavior. This suggests that cats learn to read their owner’s facial expressions and therefore indirectly their emotions. In conclusion their research indicates that cats pick up on human emotions.

9 thoughts on “Do cats pick up on human emotions?”

  1. This morning I have a medical test that scares me. After they eat (early) I close the door to the bedroom because I lay my clothes out and they shouldn’t be walking in them. I go back to sleep for another two hours. It’s not as bad as it sounds because my husband is up to play with them and give them treats.

    This morning I thought…I should let them be with me because I can’t sleep anyway and they will perhaps relax me and I’ve selected my clothes so I will get out on time. I opened the door and slowly they came in. Each of them took the positions that make me most secure, their bodies tucked beside me.

    Amazingly we all fell back to sleep. They knew I was upset just as they know when I have pains in my stomach.

    My first cat would lie on my stomach to make it feel better. I thought that was so amazing. Now my girls do the same. They definitely pick up on my emotions.

    They also know my husband doesn’t like them to sleep on him or lie against him and they stay beside me.

  2. Imo they do,when I got back home after my ‘Storm’ was sent to Rainbow Bridge I was a mess emotionally and my ‘Riley’ jumped on my lap as I was sobbing at her loss and he kept head butting me until I acknowledged his presence and then I hugged him tightly so yeah I really think they do pick up on our emotions,the photo is my ‘Storm’.

    • I know how sad you feel. My Nikki Hana crossed the Rainbow Bridge on September 7th, 2018. Her six month Angelversary will be March 7th, 2019. Storm is a gorgeous black panther. She has that knowing look in her eyes. Sending love to the Rainbow Bridge, Storm. 😥💜💜🐾

  3. I’d just add that cats see the entire world, us being in it, from the ground up. I do not think they care as much about facial expressions as we do. I know it is more, of not mostly, if not entirely reliant upon body language and vocal cadence. A person’s cat may learn what their human’s expression means by association and let it serve as additional evidence of their human’s current emotional state, I believe their primary focus is the former. Hand and foot movements, body posture, vocalizations and tone, familiar habits/routines all relating to the environment and time of day are what cats are attuned to. For practical purposes, when I go out front mid-day, pick up a favorite toy of theirs’, bend forward, slap the side of my leg and happily say “Let’s go for a walk to the park!”, they know much more about what’s going on, what to expect and how to interact than by from a look. Approaching any but especially an unfamiliar cat is best done by getting low toward their level, moving casually and letting them rub against the back of your hand. Usually the less energy you expend, body movement and talking, the more you give them control over their situation and whether they care to interact with you. While I agree they are tuned into the level of emotion we exude in these ways, they should be given the lead as to how they should feel about it. We can’t lead them or make them feel anything. That’s a mistake. We need to read and respond to their feelings in every situation. If they are anxious, we can help them relax by being calmer and letting them adjust down in their own time. Let them decide. It’s by way of suggestion, not leading or directing or even expecting them to follow suit. It’s a subtle difference than with dogs who depend on us to tell them how to feel. That’s how I see it.

    • “I’d just add that cats see the entire world, us being in it, from the ground up. I do not think they care as much about facial expressions as we do.” Good point, Albert, about the ground up view. Maybe facial expressions are not as obvious to cats, not as perceivable, and therefore not as intense in eliciting a response. But I definitely feel that our feline companions react and respond to our overall emotional state, especially the major emotions of happiness, sadness and anger. 😻

      • Yes I agree. This is hard to convey in words on a page. As with horse whispering, you have to be there. I didn’t mean say that cats don’t look at our faces, they certainly do. I guess lately I’ve been thinking more about my cross-eyed cat who doesn’t see well, who can’t see my face well at all so his reading of me IS everything else. He’s always looking at my feet and hands. My other cats do look at my face all the time, but I don’t know how much I convey much with it other than I’m addressing any one in particular. I use all the other cues to deliver messages, especially of emotion. I do exaggerate facial expressions for their benefit, which don’t go unnoticed. A look of surprise does send an unmistakable message of interest and playfulness.


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