Since the beginning of time, one question has plagued mankind: Do our pets know when we're having sex?
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Humans have kept pets for a long time. Our pets— specifically, dogs and cats— are heavily involved in our daily lives. They often eat, sleep, and watch TV alongside us. There are some human activities, however, that they cannot participate in, no matter how curious they may be.
Dog owners will tell you that their dogs definitely know when they're having sex. Some dogs may whimper, while others seem to think their humans are playing a fun game they should join. But can we be confident that they really know what's going on?
Dogs can tell that something is going on.
Though there is much interest among dog owners, there isn't much formal research in this area. I asked Julie Hecht, a PhD student in animal behavior at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and the writer behind Dog Spies on Scientific American, if our dogs know when we're having sex. Hecht says yes.
"Your behavior is different so they would notice that— noises you're making, and you probably smell different in the process," says Hect. "So yes, they know you are not sleeping, and that you are doing something else. Do they understand the human concept of sex? I wouldn't think so."
In her book Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, author Alexandra Horowitz, a cognitive scientist, offers an in-depth examination of dogs' perception of their world. You probably already know that dogs have an incredible sense of smell; they can be trained to sniff out bombs, human remains, cancer, and even something as subtle as low blood sugar.
Horowitz explains that "a dog knows if you've had sex, smoked a cigarette, done both these things in succession, just had a snack, or just run a mile."
Dogs' sense of smell probably lets them know something's up when we're having sex, but like Hecht said, whether they understand what's going on is a different story. If they could talk, dogs likely wouldn't say "my human owners are engaged in intercourse," but rather "I smell pheromones. I don't know what's going on, but I'm mad that no one is feeding me right now."
What about our feline friends?
There's less research and interest into the question of cats perception of human sex, which isn't surprising. Cats are famously much less interested in our lives than their canine counterparts, sometimes even regarding us with what feels like disdain. While dogs tend to want to be enthusiastic participants in whatever we're doing, cats are much more comfortable on their own.
Mikel Delgado, a Certified Cat Behavior Consultant and a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley, says cats are probably aware that we're acting differently, and that different smells are afoot, but it's doubtful that they understand human sex.
Perhaps we are making different noises than we usually do when we are on the bed or couch, and we are acting differently; so they will sense something is different," says Delgado, but adds that she "seriously [doubts] they know that we are mating.
Like dogs, cats seem to know something is up based on our behavior, and our smells, during sex. Also like dogs, the evidence suggests that they don't have an understanding of the concept of human sex. Unlike dogs, cats probably don't care that much either way— unless you're hogging their favorite pillow or the sunny spot on the bed.
If your pets try to interfere with your romantic exploits, the best course of action is to retreat to a pet-free room, if at all possible. The risk is lower with cats, but many dog owners have learned the hard way to keep dogs, and their invasive noses and tongues, away from the action.