Here I talk about an extremely interesting study that examined the ability of cats to detect human emotion. The study is entitled “Social referencing and cat–human communication” and was published in Animal Cognition in 2015.
Merola and colleagues examined if cats have the ability to use social referencing– or the ability of an individual to evaluate another individuals’s emotional state and change their behavior in response. This behavior has been seen in many social species including humans, non-human primates, and dogs. This ability is especially helpful in unfamiliar situations where the animal may not know how to react.
For example, lets say a cat has never encountered a dog before (an unfamiliar or strange event). The cat may not know how to react- should the cat be terrified and run for it’s life? Or, should it approach the dog and interact? If cats have the ability to socially reference their owner, they could observe how their owner reacts to the dog and adjust their behavior in response to their owner’s behavior. If the owner is happy to see the dog and interacts with it freely (positive emotional state), the cat may do so as well. Or, if the owner appears frightened of the dog and retreats (negative emotional state), the cat may do so as well.
So, Merola and colleagues presented the cats with two states, one in which their owner acted afraid of an unfamiliar object and the other in which their owner acted positively toward the unfamiliar object, which in this study was a fan turned on with streamers attached (making an unfamiliar noise as well). Researchers then observed the cat’s behavior in the different owner emotion conditions.
The researchers found the majority (79%) of cats exhibited referential looking, a measure of the social referencing ability in which the cat shifts their gaze from the unfamiliar object back to the owner to pick up social information. Additionally, cats “also to some extent changed their behaviour in line with the emotional message given by the owner.”
This is an interesting find, especially since we know so little about cat-human communication. This will not surprise many cat owners, who will tell you their cat knows when human members of the family are upset and will actively comfort them, as has happened so often to me!