It's no surprise that humans are profoundly affected by stress and the moods of people around us. Since cats are mammals like humans, scientists have wondered if cats are affected by stress and the moods of the people around them, too. As it turns out, they are. The research is also a blow to the conception of the cat as an independent animal who doesn't care or is not affected by what their owners do.
If you have noticed that your cat comes up to you for affection when you're upset, or avoids you when you're angry, that is just one type of anecdotal evidence showing that cats are affected by human moods.
Cats read non-verbal cues
Many pet owners feel such an emotional attachment to their cats that they consider their cat to be like a child. When people are around children, most of the time they naturally want to remain upbeat and positive, so as not to upset the child. Consider your cat as your child and keep an eye on your behavior when around your cats, just like you would around a human child.
The International Cat Care Organization explains that since cats lead mostly solitary lives, they must be especially adept at picking up clues that they may be in danger in their environment. They pick up on subtle clues through body language that you may be scared, which would give them a clue that they should be scared too. If you are aware of what your cat's body language means, you may be able to tell just how they are responding to your emotions.
Cats watch owners for clues
NPR reported on research published in the journal Animal Cognition that showed that cats behave in a similar way that human babies do when they are encountering a new experience. Researchers studying "social referencing" done by babies showed that babies base their response on how their parents are responding to the new experience. If the parents are calm, the babies tend to stay calm. If the parents are upset, the babies likewise tend to become upset.
Animal behavior research shows that cats are attuned to their owners in the same way. The paper, called "Social referencing and cat-human communication," reported what happened when 24 cats and their owners participated in an experiment at the University of Milan in Italy. The study was designed to answer the question about whether "cats use the emotional information provided by their owners about a novel/unfamiliar object to guide their own behavior towards it."
Cats were allowed to explore a room containing a fan with green ribbons attached to it. The cat owners either looked at the fan with a neutral expression, or used a happy expression or a negative expression and moved away from the fan.
Turns out, 79% of the cats in the study looked at their owner to see how they were responding. The cats in the negative group acted like they were looking for a way out of the room much sooner than the cats in the neutral or positive group. The study's lead author stated that in uncertain situations or new situations, cat owners can help their cats remain more comfortable through being aware of voice and facial expressions.
Cats and facial expressions
Another study, conducted by a university in Michigan, studied 12 cats and their owners. They found that the cats behaved differently when their owner was smiling compared to when they were frowning. The cats that belonged to the smiling owners were more likely to purr, rub up against their owner or sit on their owner's lap. When the 12 cats experienced strangers rather than their owners, they responded to the facial expressions in the same way.
Emotions of sick cats
A veterinarian with Pet Health Network has reported that for years she has advised her patients with terminally ill cats as well as dogs to keep a handle on their emotions when they're around their sick pets. She reports, "I knew if an owner was worried and sad, my patient was more likely to be stressed."
You may have long thought that your cat's mood is affected by your own, and here's the proof. Even if we can't always know what our cats are thinking, we can be pretty sure that they are at least interested in us, and are paying attention to what we do. Beyond just wanting us to feed them, that is!
- NPR: Mind Your Mood, Cat Owners
- Pet Health Network: Copy Cats: New Study Shows Feline Moods Influenced by Owners
- International Cat Care: Interactions With Your Cat
- BBC Earth: Your Cat Can Pick Up On How You Are Feeling
- The Telegraph: Babies Learn Humour From Parents
- National Institutes of Health US National Library of Medicine: Social Referencing and Cat-human Communication