Are cats as emotionally in tune as dogs?

Alena Ozerova /

Dogs are incredible pets. They understand the needs and moods of their owners to an incredible degree. There have been countless examples of dogs consoling a depressed owner and many studies that show dogs respond differently based on the emotional state of their own. It really appears that dogs are in sync with our emotions. Cats certainly do not appear the same way. Cats know that we are the food providers and they respond accordingly but at first glance, they don’t really seem to care. Yet a new study appears to show that this is simply not true.

There is an old story that says that when an owner dies a pet dog will stay by the body for days and cry, if the owner has a cat it will get over it far sooner and quite happily eat the face of the owner. There is little evidence of this but according to anecdotes from emergency response teams, it is allegedly more common than we think. Whether this is true or not is unclear but there is a reason this story gets shared because cats are mean. They are selfish animals and compared to dogs really aren’t as friendly.

Studies have shown that dogs respond to human emotions and may even be able to show empathy. A new study now suggests that cats also recognize changes in human emotion and respond differently. The study asked cat owners to hold frowns when interacting with pets and later to interact with a smile. The study showed that the cats responded with more purrs, rubbing, and sitting on the owner’s lap when the owner was smiling compared to frowning. Interestingly, when they conducted the same study with strangers instead of owners the cats didn’t respond differently whether smiling or frowning.  A curious result.

Experts think that this means one of two things. It either means that cats must learn a face and determine what is a smile and what is a frown or it means that cats don’t really care how happy you are. Instead, it could mean that a cat sees an owner as a food provider and they know from previous interactions that when an owner is happy they give more treats. The cat may see a smiling owner and see an easy way to get more food.

For a moment when we read this study, we almost thought cats were nice animals but it appears not. It turns out that actually, they are just using humans for food. Of course, dogs do this too but they don’t hide it like cats.

Experts say that we have known about dog emotional responses for longer than the cat response because dogs are more overt in their behavior. Cats are more introverted and therefore we may not pick up on the subtle changes in body behavior. Some believe that cats are just not as close to humans and the reason is that we domesticated dogs far earlier. The first dogs were domesticated 30,000 years ago while the first cat was 10,000 years ago. Maybe cats will trust us in another 20,000 years’ time.

The study suggests that cats do understand human facial gestures and will respond differently based on the mood of their owner. Whether they are responding differently out of compassion or because they simply want more food is unclear. The study shows that further examinations are required to get a better understanding of cat behavior. For now, we suggest that you try it at home. Start by frowning and see how friendly your cat is. Try it a few hours later only smiling and see if they react differently. Enjoy your experiments