I have a snuggly little house cat who quite frequently sits in my lap as long as I am still enough for him to be content to do so. I don’t feel he’s particularly any more attentive when I’m sick or sad, but I’ve heard of quite a lot of cats who are more sensitive to their owners and who seem to go so far as to keep close tabs on them, bringing them company and companionship most when they are under the weather, have a long-term illness, or even psychologically upset or unwell.
This is definitely not a topic that’s been studied all that thoroughly, yet there does seem to be something to the idea that cats can read human emotion, changes in our behaviour, and intuit mood and overall happiness or sadness from them. Thus, it’s not a stretch to think that when our cats trail us around the house, sitting and sleeping next to or even on top of us when we are upset or sick, that they at least partially realize what they are doing and are purposefully trying to bring us comfort.
I’ll get into the little science I found first, then discuss things a bit more with you. Once you’re done reading, please do take a moment and stop by the comments section. I’d love to hear any and all experiences you’ve had related to the topic of cats understanding human emotion, cats knowing when humans are sick, and cats providing comfort for sick or upset pet owners. I’m sure a lot of other cat owners would also love to hear your stories and opinions, so do take a few minutes to share!
Picture from post 01/09/16
The (Little) Science Related to Cats Comforting Their Owners
I really wish I found more studies around or even mildly related to this topic. I’m sure at least a few more exist, I just couldn’t seem to dig well enough to find them. Either way, here’s the single study I’ve managed to uncover – related to cats reading human emotion – what I think it says about cats noticing when owners are sick, ill, or even sad, and what that can say about them comforting us.
A Study on Cats Reading Human Emotion
The study “Man’s other best friend: domestic cats (F. silvestris catus) and their discrimination of human emotion cues” by Galvan and Vonk tested whether cats could read facial and body-language cues related to posture – those that depicted happiness and anger – in their owners. The study then went on to test whether cats were able to interpret vocal cues of human emotion, through having the owners pretend to be happy or angry with another human (the experimenter) in a positively or negatively charged conversation.
Upon analyzing the behaviours of the cats in their study, the researchers concluded, “Domestic cats were only modestly sensitive to emotion, particularly when displayed by their owner, suggesting that a history of human interaction alone may not be sufficient to shape such abilities in domestic cats.”
Now, to my knowledge (because I can’t get access to the full study and had to go based on what other articles online were saying about it), only 12 cats were studied, and it’s not necessarily true that the conclusions the researchers made based on their study were accurate. Maybe their experiment was flawed, that it wasn’t the best way to study the topic at hand, and maybe a different conclusion would’ve been arrived at with a different experiment on the topic, or using different cats.
Obviously, there is absolutely no way this one small study tells us everything we need to know about cats and their ability to interpret human emotion. But at the same time it does tell us that cats do at least have the capacity to be modestly sensitive to our way of showcasing emotion.
If cats can interpret our emotion and understand when we are happy or unhappy/angry, even if it’s pretty badly, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think they may choose to comfort us if/when they realize there is something wrong.
Picture from Post Spending Time with Sammy
My Thoughts on Cats Comforting Humans When They’re Sick
I’d say that some cats are likely to be better than others at reading human beings. Those that interact one-on-one with humans more frequently (like indoor cats, or cats that get a lot of cuddles, affection, and attention from humans in general), I believe are more likely to develop a sense of when their particular humans are feeling positively or negatively.
I do think it’s hard for cats to interpret human emotions. I don’t think it’s something that comes ever-so-naturally to them, but I think many of them become good, if not at interpreting facial expressions (I think my cat Avery could never do this, actually), at the very least at interpreting really exaggerated obvious physical behaviour. I think it’d be crazy to say a cat wouldn’t know that a human raising his or her voice was a sign that that human was having a negative emotion. I think cats understand that aggressive behaviours like straightening posture to look bigger, stomping feet, things we do when we are mad naturally, are a sign we’re displeased. I don’t necessarily think they need to be able to interpret human facial expressions to be able to know we’re upset. And if they’re able to interpret other body language or behaviour (like us being physically slower, moving around less than usual, spending a lot of time in bed) as signs that we were not at our best, that’s plenty enough understanding in my head to be able to use that knowledge of our mood to comfort us with cuddles, snuggles, purring, and love.
I think some cats are a lot better at this than others. My cat, for instance, isn’t particularly good at interpreting when I’m upset, unhappy, feeling unwell, or sad. I think he comes to me for cuddles and love whenever I’m still enough for him to sit in my lap anyway, and he does this about the same frequency when I am happy as when I am sick or sad.
I do think some cats are different, however, and that some cats are both particularly good at intuiting human emotion, and much more readily giving of comfort, cuddles, and love when it happens. I think human beings have different emotional IQ, and I honestly would be shocked if that wasn’t true of animals, too.
Maybe cats know if we’re sick, maybe they don’t. Maybe they can smell changes in our bodies, maybe they can read our facial expressions. Maybe they can’t, but they can read our body language and can tell that things are wrong with us based on us rubbing our foreheads, holding our stomachs, maybe they just know something is different today because Daddy usually wakes up at the crack of dawn and it’s already noon.
Maybe cats don’t comfort us, they just like sitting and snuggling more when we’re still and calm than when we’re up and at it, moving around a lot, being our usual happy, peppy selves. Maybe they get it, and it’s obvious because their behaviour is different on happy rainy, snuggly Saturdays, and unhappy, sunny sick days off work.
I think it’s really all up in the air, and it really can vary from cat to cat. My snuggle bug – absolutely doesn’t have the emotional IQ of a lot of cats I know and have heard of. Maybe yours does.
Maybe being comforted by a cat is something common, maybe cats who do it are special. We’ll never know until it’s studied, but I do think it’s incredibly likely there’s more to a cat’s ability in this apartment than we think.
Picture from post This One
Your Experiences with Cats Comforting Owners?
Have you ever had a cat who comforted you when you were sick, unhappy, or unwell? Have you had multiple cats? Did all of them do this?
Have you any theories on whether some cats can read human emotion better than others? Have you any experience in this department with particular cats being better or worse than others at interpreting humans?
I would really love to hear what you have to say in the comments down below!