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Do Cats Monitor Our Emotions?

Cats tune in to their owners' moods

All Animals magazine, May/June 2015

by Jonathan Balcombe

  • Photo by spooh/iStockphoto

As independent creatures, cats have developed a reputation for being aloof and enigmatic. But if you’ve lived with cats, you may have noticed that they appear sensitive to our moods. Here’s one example related to me by a colleague:

When one of two 13-year-old brother cats died, their female owner was crushed; she suffered panic attacks and prolonged grief. Disturbed by her suffering, the surviving cat would retreat to the bedroom despite the woman’s pleas for him to stay with her.

“It got to the point that I was picking him up and bringing him to the living room, only to have him dash back to the bedroom,” she reported. It was not until she was advised to be more relaxed and positive around the cat, and to reward him with play and occasional treats, that he emerged from his refuge.

Now, researchers at the University of Milan, Italy, report that cats tune in to their owners for positive and negative emotional cues. When confronted with an unfamiliar object (an electric fan) on the other side of the experimental room, most of the cats alternated gazes between the owner and the fan, and they were more relaxed if the owner showed a positive response to the fan. (Studies on dogs have shown similar levels of attention to their owners.)

The take-home message: We may reduce our cats’ stress by responding positively to new people, animals or inanimate objects in their environment.

Jonathan Balcombe is director of animal sentience for the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy.

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