Cats — well, some cats — seem to have a truly uncanny sixth sense when it comes to human emotions. Some cats need to be attached to their owners before they care very much about what we may or may not be feeling. I’ve met other cats, though, who seemed to care passionately about the emotional state of everyone they met. This included both humans and other cats. The myth of the aloof and callous feline is largely a slander, in my opinion. Cats simply have their own ways of showing us that they care.
Do cats sense sadness? Yes, some cats seem to be able to pick up on humans’ emotional states and to respond with apparent empathy and concern. Exactly how much a cat may understand about a human’s inner life is not something we can know; that said, some cats certainly seem to demonstrate a degree of awareness.
You’ve landed on this page because you have questions about cats and their understanding of human emotional states. Perhaps you think your cat is picking up on your own emotions and want to know if this is possible or not. Maybe you’re considering a cat as a pet and are curious about their level of empathy.
- Can cats really sense when we’re sad?
- How do cats respond to human feelings?
- How do cats know what’s going on with a human’s mental state?
- Do cats show empathy or compassion?
- How do cats try to comfort their humans?
Read on to find out more.
Do cats sense sadness?
Some people are surprised at the idea that cats might be able to pick up on human emotional states. In my opinion, it would be far odder if they didn’t have some insight into the feelings of people around them.
The idea of the icy-cool, emotionally detached cat is so entrenched in the popular imagination that I despair of ever-shifting it. As widely believed as it is, though, this image of the cat is grossly unfair. Cats are not solitary animals at all. When left to be their feral selves, they form loose semi-matriarchal colonies. Tasks like kitten-rearing and hunting are shared, with all the cats operating within a general hierarchy.
They’re not pack animals in the way that dogs are, but cats are still social creatures. Like other social animals, cats possess a degree of empathy and are more than capable of forming emotional bonds. If you think about it, a cat who couldn’t pick up on emotional cues wouldn’t cope very well in a colony. If you don’t know when Old Ginger is in a bad mood and needs to be left alone, or when Queen Moggy is down in the dumps and could probably do with a nice juicy mouse to cheer her up, you won’t be able to get on very well with your fellow cats. A degree of emotional intelligence is necessary for any social species, including the much-misunderstood cat.
For a domestic cat, their colony-mates are the humans they live with (and possibly other cats or pets). Instead of a group of feral cats, domestic cats need to forge their emotional connections to the creatures they live with, doing the best they can to navigate what must often be a bewildering psychological landscape. While humans and animals are very creatures and express our emotions in different ways, there’s enough overlap for many cats to understand when we’re happy, angry, ill or sad. I think most of my fellow cat owners could tell you a few touching anecdotes about times when they were sad or distressed, and their cat came in to comfort them. I have a few myself.
Not all cats will be able to understand human emotions very well, just like not all cats can learn to walk in a harness or perform tricks. That’s fine. It’s important to appreciate your cat for what she can do rather than resenting what she can’t. If your cat doesn’t automatically come running every time you feel a little blue, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t care about you — just that she has other ways of showing it.
You must also keep in mind that any emotional bond requires a degree of mutual trust. If your cat is traumatised, semi-feral or simply has one of the more skittish feline personalities, she may not be able to build up the bond of trust and affection needed to easily pick up on your sadness or other emotions.
How do cats detect sadness?
Cats have a number of ways in which they might pick up on your emotional state. If a human is showing visible signs of distress — retreating into their room, curling up on their bed and crying — even a less emotionally literate cat may be savvy enough to understand that something is wrong. Some of these behaviours are very similar to those demonstrated by a sick or injured cat. Retreating to a safe nest and making distressed vocalisations are things that cats also do, which might prompt supportive behaviour from a nearby feline.
Cats also seem to pick up on more subtle signs. I’m not sure if it’s always the sadness itself they’re registering or something else, such as the smell of sickness or the absence of someone who’s normally around.
Cats communicate a great deal of information through body language. They are very physically expressive creatures who rely a lot on posture and small cues from their tails, ears and eyes. It follows that they can become quite skilled at reading a human’s posture. Even if a person is trying to mask their feelings, their shoulders may be drooping or they may be showing other small signs of emotional upset. A cat might be able to discern these even if a human can’t.
Studies have shown that cats can pick up on your emotional state more effectively if there is a bond between you and the animal. They’re much less adept at picking up the emotions of strangers (or maybe they simply don’t care and thus don’t swoop into sympathy mode). Mark you, some cats seem to form at least casual attachments with great facility. I’ve known some who could astutely work out that something was wrong after a few hours’ acquaintances.
How do cats show you that they know you’re sad?
Cats respond to sadness in humans in different ways. She may keep her distance but supervise the distressed human, perhaps taking up a perch where she can look down and observe the situation. Commonly, though, cats will want to get close to a person and will try to comfort them through interaction. If the person is sitting or lying down, the cat may come and curl up with them. It’s common for a cat to “make biscuits” on you when trying to comfort you, kneading you with her paws.
The most common activity used by cats when they comfort you is purring. As well as being a pleasing sound, a cat’s purr has certain physiological effects. For one thing, it’s been found to produce a distinctly soothing effect on cats and humans alike. Listening to a cat’s purr can actually lower your blood pressure. A purring cat may reduce the levels of cortisol and other stress hormones in your bloodstream, physically protecting you from the effects of anxiety and other negative emotions.
Something really remarkable about a cat’s purr is that it can actually encourage physical healing. Some studies have shown that being in proximity to a purring cat can speed up the healing rate for broken bones and other injuries. It can even reduce recovery times for infections and diseases. A cat coming in to shower you with affection may be helping you more than you know.
How can I teach my cat to sense sadness?
You can’t, not really. The best thing you can do is to work on enhancing the loving bond between you and your cat. You can learn more about what makes her, and other cats, tick. You can discover how she shows her emotions to you.
Cats give and receive affection in ways that are both similar to and different than the ways in which humans show affection to each other. To build up the kind of loving, trusting relationship that will allow your cat to know when you’re sad, you’ll need to spend time unlearning patterns of behaviour that could unwittingly be driving a wedge between you and your cat.
Do you punish your cat when she does things you don’t like? You will need to find other ways to change her behaviour — punishment really just alienates cats. For example, if you want your cat to stay off the counter, set up a motion-activated air spray instead of shouting at her or spraying her with water.
How do you show affection to your cat? Some people feel entitled to their cat’s physical affection at all times but this can actually be alienating for your pet. Let your cat come to you for cuddles and petting rather than, say, grabbing her, picking her up and not putting her down when she wriggles.
Make sure you’re spending plenty of fun time with your cat. Play with her often. Find out what kinds of games and toys are most appealing to her and bring them out whenever you have a free moment.
By learning to read your cat’s body language and respond appropriately, you’ll be able to strengthen the bond between you and develop a more loving, healthy connection. Maybe the next time you’re feeling down, your cat will finally come and give you the support you’ve been craving.
Article by Barbara Read
Barbara Read is the heart and soul behind CatBeep.com. From her early love for cats to her current trio of feline companions, Barbara's experiences shape her site's tales and tips. While not a vet, her work with shelters offers a unique perspective on cat care and adoption.