We like to think of our pets as fairly intuitive, and to a certain extent, they are. But can our dogs and cats discern emotion? Specifically, do they know when we're angry?
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Here's something cool: It seems that dogs can tell when we're angry.
Dogs have co-evolved with humans for millennia, and they're pretty tuned in to us at this point. As Popular Science reports, a study out of the University of Helsinki in Finland suggested that dogs know to look away when they see an angry face.
In the study, researchers showed 31 domesticated dogs (who were experienced in eye tracking tests and had been trained to watch a screen) different human and dog facial expressions: pleasant, neutral, and threatening. Then, they used infrared cameras to track each dog's gaze for each expression. They wanted to know where they looked first, as well as where they lingered. As Popular Science writes, "when the dog test subjects encountered a frightening dog face, they would focus on the mouth area of the face, and stare longer. A threatening human face would elicit a much more evasive behavior, 'apparently avoiding looking at them,' the paper says."
These findings suggest that dogs, through centuries of domestication, have learned to "appease" humans by averting their gaze when we're angry, which is, frankly, mind-blowing. If you're a dog owner, however, this skill probably comes as no surprise to you.
What about cats, who are famously less people-pleasing than their canine counterparts?
Though cats have a reputation as the more self-centered pet, there is evidence that they can read some human expressions. As BBC Earth reports, a study out of Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan suggests that cats can read at least two basic human expressions: smiling and frowning. Researchers studied 12 cats, and found that they behaved differently when their owner was smiling compared to when they were frowning. Cats with smiling owners tended to spend more time performing "positive" behaviors, like purring or sitting in their owner's lap.
There's other research that suggests cats have some sensitivity to human moods, too. However, it's difficult to discern to what degree cats are aware of our emotions. A cat may know that a frowning human is a "bad thing," but people frown for a wide range of reasons. It's unclear whether cats can identify anger as a specific emotion.
Also, there's always the possibility that they know, and they just don't care. Such is life with a cat.