How does a cat feel when they are yelled at?

Domestic cats are very likely to feel anxious and run away and hide if they are yelled at by their owner. They understand that their owner has become ‘hostile’ which may confuse them. The severity of the anxiety and overall reaction will depend on the cat’s character. Rarely, some cats will be unresponsive, perhaps if they live in a home where there is a lot of yelling! However, normally if there is a lot of yelling a cat is likely to feel chronically stressed and quite possibly suffer from a health problem such as cystitis.

Yelling at a cat. Not good. It should never. happen but it does
Yelling at a cat. Not good. It should never happen but it does. Image: MikeB

In other words, if you yell at your cat their reaction will be not dissimilar to that of a rather timid human. They won’t be aggressive towards the person unless he/she is being physically aggressive to them. A cat’s reaction is to get away because they are living with a creature much larger than them who’s usually friendly.

I wanted to find out how many cat owners had succumbed to stress and yelled at their cat but there are no studies. I suspect that it happens quite a lot because cats are companions and every cat owner talks to their cat.

As they talk to their cat it shouldn’t be a surprise if they yell at them occasionally when, for example, they do something which scares their caregiver such as jumping onto their owner’s lap when they have a tray with food and drink on it. There’ll be other occasions when a cat might make their owner anxious. If the owner is stressed and/or in pain, their emotions can provoke a yell.

Rarely, I have raised my voice towards my cat and, of course, I regret it. My cat trots away and returns about five minutes later almost as if nothing has happened. He’ll be friendly and seek friendship which he gets in spades.

Even in the best human-to-human relationships there is going to be the occasional argument with raised voices. It is human nature. We should not be too surprised if rarely, even in a loving human-to-cat relationship that the caregiver raises their voice towards their cat.

This is to be distinguished from malicious yelling at a cat by an unpleasant owner ill-suited to the task. Under these circumstances the cat will suffer from stress and they should be removed from the home.

Also there must be occasions when there are two cat owners – husband and wife for instance – who argue a lot. They yell at each other. This will taint the environment and make it unfriendly for a cat. Couples who yell at each other are likely to undermine their kids in a similar way. Some children can be harmed psychologically by persistently arguing parents. They might feel that it is their fault if they’ve been naughty and this might cause low self-esteem which will have a negative impact on them all their lives.

Cats don’t react like that but a chronic environment can harm them mentally; make then chronically nervous.

It goes without saying that cats don’t like loud noises. They like the opposite: a calm, quite environment in which they can establish their own space and where they can knit their routines around those of their caregiver who’s present a lot of the time.

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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

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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