Part of the appeal of cats is that they are independent creatures. Yes, they live with us and we feed and care for them, but often, they decide when and how they show us affection. It's clear that cats bond with humans, even choosing favorite people, but what they actually think of humans is still somewhat a mystery.
Cats and humans bond
Dogs are said to be "man's best friend," and part of that reasoning is that dogs and humans have lived together and helped each other for so long. Humans domesticated dogs about 30,000 ago, says the BBC, but cats only started living around humans about 9,000 years ago. In that scenario, dogs may be more attuned to humans just because they've lived with us for so much longer.
However, it is clear that cats and humans bond. In 2016, Michigan researchers studying cat psychology published a paper in the journal Animal Cognition that looked at how 12 cats respond to their owners. The cats were invited to spend time with their owners, who were either smiling or frowning.
The cats exhibited more positive behaviors such as purring, sitting on their owners' laps, or rubbing against them, while the owners were smiling. When the cats were spending time with strangers, the cats' behavior didn't seem to change whether the strangers were smiling or frowning. The researchers concluded that cats recognize human moods, and that they learn to recognize human facial expressions over time, possibly such as by spending time with the same person.
Cat emotions and humans
An earlier (2015) Animal Cognition study looked at how cats respond to a stressful situation. As Scientific American explained, these researchers placed cats and their owners in a room with an electric fan with green ribbons attached to it. The ribbons and the whirring fan was meant to visually represent something odd and potentially scary for the cats.
The study looked at a behavior known as "social referencing," which, according to Psychology Concepts, basically means that the cat (studies have also been done on dogs and human babies doing this) refers to the facial expression of its human to see how it should be responding . . . in other words, if the human (or parent) is upset, the animal (or human baby) will be too.
When the cats forest encountered the "monster fan," 79% of cats looked back toward their owners. When the owners seem frightened or worried about the fan, the cats began looking for the exit in the room faster than the cats whose owners looked positive about the fan. The cats with the negative-looking owners seemed to want to escape the room more quickly, but at the same time, the negative control group cats also looked toward the exit even before their owners made any facial expression. This makes it hard to reach a firm conclusion, but the researchers do conclude that human emotions and moods can affect cat emotions.
- Springer: Man’s other best friend: domestic cats (F. silvestris catus) and their discrimination of human emotion cues
- BBC: Your Cat Can Pick Up On How You're Feeling
- Springer: Social referencing and cat–human communication
- Scientific American: I Can Haz Danger? Dogs Show Social Referencing, What about Cats?
- Psychology Concepts: Social Referencing