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Cats Can Interpret Their Owner's Emotions, New Study Reveals

Oct 15, 2015 01:43 PM EDT
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Scientists from Oakland University are suggesting that cats are more receptive to human emotions than we've previously surmised. This conclusion is based on their recent study involving 12 cats and their owners which showed that felines behave differently based on whether their owners are smiling or frowning. 

While similar behaviors have previously been documented in domestic dogs (C. lupus famaliaris), researchers were interested to see if domestic cats (F. silvestris catus) – who mostly appear uninterested in their human owners – possess similar abilities.

"People care about whether cats really do understand and pay attention to their owners," Jennifer Vonk, co-author of the study, told BBC. "Our work shows that they may not be as indifferent as people accuse them of being."

During their study, researchers observed that cats exhibited more frequent "positive" behaviors – purring, rubbing or sitting on their owner's lap and spending more time with them – when their owner was smiling. Frowns seemed to produce the opposite effect in the cats.

Researchers also noticed that these cats exhibited similar "positive" behaviors when placed with strangers, regardless of whether the strangers were smiling – as if they were giving the strangers the benefit of the doubt or were trying to put their best foot forward.

All of this suggests that cats can learn how to read owner specific facial expressions over time.  

Researchers were careful to note, however, that their findings do not mean cats are capable of feeling empathy. Instead, it seems to indicate that cats have learned to associate their owners' smiles with rewards and positive attention.

The study was recently published in the journal Animal Cognition

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