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The Truth About Cats and Dogs

by Belinda Recio

How well do we really know each other?

Dogs and people have been hanging out together for over 30,000 years. After so many years of cohabitation, the human-canine relationship has become as comfortable as an old marriage.

Most people believe that they know what their dogs want, how they feel, and sometimes even what they are thinking. And if dogs could speak, they could probably finish our sentences for us. Our canine companions are amazingly adept at reading the hearts and minds of their human family members.

By comparison, cats and people are still at least a little bit of a mystery to each other. Scientists estimate that cats were only domesticated 9,000 years ago—less than one-third the time that dogs have been sleeping at our feet. Such a relatively short relationship is, on the evolutionary scale, more akin to dating than marriage.

We might know what foods and toys cats like, and where they enjoy being scratched, but as to the rest of what goes on inside the feline mind: most of us don’t have a clue. Until recently, scientists believed that the mystery was mutual and that cats didn’t know—or care—much about what goes on in the human mind, either. But new research suggests that cats know us better than we think, and they may be as interested in reading our moods as their canine counterparts.

This past January, UK researcher Dr. Isabella Merola published a study (in the journal Animal Cognition) reporting the results of an experiment that measured social referencing in cats. Social referencing refers to the tendency of a person or animal to assess the emotional cues of another person or animal in order to obtain information about a situation. Infants, children and adults do this, as do dogs and primates. But it was a surprise to learn that cats—with their independent and often aloof demeanors—also engage in social referencing.

Merola was interested in whether cats watch us to discern our reactions to new stimuli, and if they take cues from our behavior. So she recruited 36 cat-owner pairs to participate in a social referencing experiment similar to previous studies conducted with dogs. The research team set up an electric fan enhanced with green ribbons (that flickered away once the fan was turned on) at one end of a room, and a screen that hid a video camera and blocked the exit at the other end. The cats were then invited to explore the room while their owners responded to the fan with either positive or negative emotions, using happy or fearful facial and vocal expressions and movements toward or away from the fan.

Most cats (79 percent) looked back and forth between the fan and then their owners, as if searching for clues as to how to react. They also changed their behavior to some extent, based on the emotional message from their owners. These results are very close to the results of a similar experiment for dogs, suggesting that cats, like dogs, really do care about what we think, and even count on us to direct them when faced with unfamiliar circumstances.

What does this study mean for those of us who share our lives with cats? It means that our behavior impacts our feline friends more than most of us believed. Without realizing it, we might be influencing our cats’ perceptions of and reactions to the world. Knowing this, we can try to change the emotional messages we send to our cats in order to help them experience positive mood states, such as feeling safe, confident, curious, relaxed and playful.

We can also use the knowledge that cats are watching us and taking their cues from us to improve the way we train them and to help solve behavioral problems. Anyone who has lived with a cat knows that they can be trained to do a few basic things through the use of reinforcement, such as treats. But now we know that modifying our own behaviors and emotional states could also play a significant role in training.

More than 10 years ago, Cesar Millan, the “dog whisperer,” introduced the world to the idea that our emotional energy impacts our dogs. He encouraged dog owners to understand how their own moods, attitudes, and behaviors affect their dogs. Now we know that this is no less true for cats. Merola’s study reminds us that as we learn more about our cats, dogs, and other companion animals, we have the opportunity to learn more about ourselves as well.

Belinda Recio, recipient of the Humane Society’s Award for Innovation in the Study of Animals, owns True North Gallery (truenorthgallery.net) in Hamilton, MA, where she exhibits art that connects people with animals and the natural world.

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