Research recently published in the journal Animal Cognition posits that cats are quite in tune with their owners’ emotions, and respond to those emotions. The study, “Social referencing and cat–human communication,” details the results of an experiment conducted at Italy’s University of Milan with 24 cats and their owners to see what cats do with emotional information provided by their people.
According to the study, the first of its kind involving cats, researchers put each cat-owner pair in an unfamiliar room with an object sure to cause the cats some anxiety: a running fan with plastic ribbons attached to it. One group of owners provided positive reinforcement by talking in a happy voice while looking from the cat to the fan. The second group talked to their cats in a fearful voice while looking from the cat to the fan.
Researchers then assessed what they call “social referencing” in the cats, defined as “looking to the owner immediately before or after looking at the object.” The cats clearly participated in social referencing, with researchers concluding that 79 percent of the cats alternated between looking at their owner and the fan. The study found the cats even changed their behavior “to some extent” according to their owners' emotional message.
Interestingly, the cats responded more overtly, in terms of looking at their owners, to the negative emotions than to the positive emotions. “Overall, cats in the negative group also showed a higher frequency in their interaction with the owner than cats in the positive group, potentially suggesting they were looking for security from their owner,” according to the study.
“Cats are social animals, but their sociality is defined ‘optional,’” says Isabella Merola, lead author of the study and the owner of two cats herself. “Cats usually decide when and with whom to interact."
Merola notes that all of the cats in the study focused on their owners because they were in a strange situation. Even cats that usually ignored their people felt compelled to look to their owners for direction in that scenario, says Merola.