Domestic cats recognise through sight and sound certain human emotions and respond

Domestic cats recognise human emotions from sound and appearance
Domestic cats recognise human emotions from sound and appearance. Image by MikeB
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Summary of a scientific study: “Emotion Recognition in Cats”

The report concerns the results of a study on cats’ ability to recognize and respond to emotional expressions in both conspecifics (other cats) and humans. The study found that cats were able to match visual and auditory signals of certain emotions, such as “hiss” from conspecifics and “anger” from humans, and respond to them in a functional way, such as by showing increased stress levels. The study suggests that cats have developed socio-cognitive abilities for understanding human emotions in order to interact with humans effectively. The study also notes that the cats did not show the same level of recognition for the “purr” emotion from conspecifics, which may be due to the many different functions and contexts in which cats use this vocalization. Further research is needed to investigate this further.

Some details

As the study says, the ability of individuals to perceive and respond to other individuals’ emotions is important for animals living in social groups. Domestic cats have adapted to living in social groups.

Scientists call other cats in a group “conspecifics” and they call humans “heterospecifics”. The purpose of the study I mention above was to “investigate cats’ ability to recognise conspecific and human emotions”.

They came to the conclusion that “cats integrate visual and auditory signals to recognise human and conspecific emotions”. In other words, they do understand when their human caregiver is angry and they pick up other strong emotions through their body language, facial expressions and the sounds that humans make. That is my interpretation and it is also based upon personal experience.

Cats have learnt this to improve the quality of the relationship between been cat and person. And of course, it goes without saying that humans have also learned how to interpret auditory and visual signals from cats.

Interestingly, the study describes the domestic cat as a “social species”. You wouldn’t say that about the domestic cat’s wild cat ancestor which is described as a solitary creature. Part of the domestic cat’s adaptation to becoming sociable is to read the minds, if you like, of conspecifics.

It should be added that other scientific studies have found that dogs and horses can pick up human and conspecific emotional signals from vocalisations, their faces and olfactory signals.

Dogs and horses also have a “functional understanding of human emotional signals and adjust their behaviour according to the valence [strength] and intensity of the emotional message conveyed”.

Overall, the result of the study showed that cats have a “functional understanding of highly arousing emotions”. In other words, they can pick up on strong emotions demonstrated by the human caregiver and in other species. Cats have developed social skills to allow them to understand human emotional signals, a key factor in maintaining a good interspecies relationship.

Two more articles on the same topic from a different angle and different source. I add these to make the discussion more comprehensive.

Are cats sensitive to human emotions?

Do cats pick up on human emotions?

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