Cats often get a bad rap for being aloof or showing disdain for their owners, but a recent study challenges that stereotype and shows that our feline friends rely on us for emotional cues.
Research has shown that dogs look to their owners to determine how to react to an unfamiliar object, a phenomenon known as social referencing.
Humans babies also do this by processing information from their parents' facial expressions and voices. A new study at the University of Milan offers evidence that cats do this as well, according to NPR.
In a paper published in Animal Cognition, Isabella Merola reports how she tested social referencing in cats in much the same way it was tested in dogs: by placing cats and their owners in a room with a "potentially frightening object."
Twenty-four cats and their owners participated in the experiment and were placed in either a positive group or a negative group.
One at a time, cat-and-owner pairs entered a room that contained an electric fan with plastic ribbons attached to it. At one end of the room was a screen that acted as a barrier for the cats and marked the only way out.
"The aim was to evaluate whether cats use the emotional information provided by their owners about a novel/unfamiliar object to guide their own behaviour towards it," the paper reads.
As the cats walked around the room, their owners were told not to react to the fan in a negative or positive way at first. Then they were instructed to respond either positively or negatively.
In the positive group, owners used happy expressions and calming voices as they approached the fan. In the negative group, they acted fearfully and stepped away from it.
Most of the cats — 79 percent — looked from the fan to their owner during the neutral phase, a number that closely matches the results for dogs in a similar experiment. The cats also "changed their behaviour in line with the emotional message given by the owner," the paper reads.
Cats in the negative group were more likely to alternate their gaze between the screen and the fan than cats in the positive group. The cats in the negative group also began moving sooner than those in the positive group, possibly seeking an escape route.
Although further research is needed, it's clear that cats are affected by our actions, expressions and voices — even if they don't always respond to our voices the way we'd like.
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