This is not a dogs vs. cats post. Really. I wouldn't do that. Instead, this is a post about animal cognition and how we ask similar questions about different species, ourselves included. To begin, picture the following scenario.

You and your dog are walking down the street and encounter this:

What will happen?

Recent studies suggest there's a good chance your dog will look back at you, particularly when confronted with an odd situation like this one. On top of that, the emotion you convey could affect what your dog does next -- whether they investigate the odd flappy air dancer or freeze and back up.

For example, if you look like this...

... and convey that it's good to approach the nutty air dancer, your dog will be more likely to approach.

But if you look like this...

... and convey negative emotions or that approaching is not a good idea, your dog could be less likely to investigate.

While researchers continue to examine how dogs interpret our many many different emotions, it looks like our emotions are both meaningful and useful to dogs.

How about cats?

A study published earlier this year in Animal Cognition investigated how our companion cats attend to us and our emotions. Do cats look back at their owners when they come across something ambiguous or new? And do the owners' emotions and associated behaviors affect the cat's behavior?

Isabella Merola and colleagues adapted their dog social referencing methods to companion cats. As in the dog studies, cats entered a room with their owners and encountered the Crazy Green Monster, an electric fan with green ribbons attached.

When first encountering this odd and potentially frightening object, 79% of cats, like the dogs, looked back toward their owners. While this is a notable starting point, why the cats looked at their owners is a bit harder to decipher for cats than for dogs. Cats whose owners conveyed a negative mood looked more toward the exit than cats whose owners were more positive about the Crazy Green Monster. We might conclude, "Aha! Cats were affected by their owner's mood. The cats with the negative owners wanted to get out of there more than the cats with the positve owners." But, cats who happened to be assigned to the negative-owner group also looked more toward the exit even before their owners started conveying the negative emotion at all, making it difficult to say whether the cats were affected by owner emotion or the situation itself.

Additionally, when the fan was turned off toward the end of the study -- and turned into a stationary Crazy Green Monster -- two cats whose owners acted positively toward the Crazy Green Monster approached it, and one cat whose owner was negative also approached. It's hard to say whether cats where affected by owner emotions or were simply more interested because the fan was no longer waving erratically.

This study is a much-needed first step in investigating whether our emotions and moods can affect cat behavior. While it is probably premature to feature a headline like, Cats Take Emotional Cues From Owners, Study Finds, it can't hurt to notice whether your cat ever engages in social referencing or whether your mood affects their behavior, especially about things that are ambiguous or potentially frightening.

Images: Zoe the cat Roadsidepictures, Flickr creative commons license; Desi comments; Cat and Crazy Green Monster adapted from Table 1, Merola et al., 2012.


Merola et al. 2015. Social referencing and cat-human communication. Animal Cognition 18, 639-648.