Can Your Cat Tell When You’re Sad?
Veterinarian Reviewed by Dr. Janice Huntingford, DVM on August 4, 2018
Posted in Behavior Management
Have you ever had a bad day, ending with your crawling into bed and hiding under the covers, only to have your cat snuggle up beside you a few minutes later? There’s something so reaffirming and reassuring about having a little ball of fur curled up on you when you’re sad or upset.
But does your cat actually understand that you’re feeling blue? Or are they just doing what comes natural to them? A recent, small study involving 12 cats and their owners suggests that our cats may actually know when we’re feeling depressed… but that comforting us might not be deliberate.
Reading the signs on our faces
Now, the details of the study don’t exactly paint an emotionally intelligent picture of our cats. Instead, the reason they tend to comfort us may be a learned response based on our expressions. In the study, cats tended to respond more to a smiling owner because the cat learned to associate the smiling facial expression with things like petting and treats. The implication is that this theory may very well work in reverse.
Think about it this way. If you’re sad, depressed or downtrodden and you crawl into bed, your cat may just be looking for a warm place to nap. But, you might find it soothing to pet them or cuddle them when they approach. Over time, the cat may learn that your sad mood comes with plenty of petting a scratching, which will make them more prone to seeking you out when you’re exhibiting signs of sadness.
So, while your cat may not exactly understand your mood, it does understand the nuances of your behavior while you’re exhibiting a certain emotion. It’s a bit less romantic than the idea that our cats have the capacity to comfort, but it does mean they care enough to recognize our behaviors!
Situational cues for comfort
In addition to checking out your behavior for cues on when they’re most likely to get love and attention, your cat is also going to pick up on situational clues. Here, your habits when you’re sad or depressed won’t go unnoticed by your cat.
Time spent in bed is a big signal that your cat may come to associate with snuggling or attention. For example, if you spend all day in bed because you’re down in the dumps and just don’t have the energy to get up, your cat may take this as a cue to sleep in next to you, reaping the benefits of warmth and comfort. Similarly, if you eat when your upset, your cat might take this as a signal that crumbs are soon to be found, making them more prone to spending time near you.
Cats are extremely observant creatures, which means they may be picking up on habits you didn’t even know you had—especially when your emotions are running high. Even something like crying or blowing your nose can be linked to some sort of action that benefits the cat—petting or praise, for example—that they’ll pick up on!
Your cat is there for you… kind of.
Cats may not be emotionally intelligent enough to realize that you need comfort when you’re sad, but they are receptive to the concept that you’re paying them attention. If your cat associates your sadness with love and attention, it’s going to seek you out at your low points. In this way, there’s a mutually beneficial exchange that happens. You get the comfort of a snuggling cat and your cat gets the attention it wants from you. The science behind it might not be so tender, but the moment you share will be.
Can your cat get sad?
You may be wondering if your cat has the capacity to be sad. In fact, they do! Although the scale of emotions is different from people to cats. Cats don’t typically get “sad” in the way we do. We can be sad about a certain situation and rebound in a short time, confronting our emotions and working through them.
Cats, on the other hand, tend to experience sadness in extremes. A sad cat doesn’t generally mope around for a few hours and get over their sadness. Instead, they become chronically depressed and lethargic. Generally, this is because their sadness is tied to an illness or trauma—anything from a chronic health condition to the death of an owner or fellow pet. This drives the cat to be depressed more than just sad.
If your cat is sad, it’s not because you’re sad. Cats just don’t have the emotional depth to make this connection. And while they may “comfort” you in your time of feeling sad, it’s important for you to recognize their sadness for what it is: a sign that something is habitually wrong. You might be able to get over your sadness, but your cat might not be able to cope without some intervention.
Kitty therapy is good for the soul
Sadness affects us all differently. And, even though they might not understand it, your cat can be a great coping mechanism for getting you past your blue mood. If you’re down in the dumps, don’t be afraid to give your cat some love—chances are, they’ll find you the next time you need a little TLC, even if it is for their own selfish purpose!
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Janice Huntingford, DVM, has been in veterinary practice for over 30 years and has founded two veterinary clinics since receiving her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. She has studied extensively in both conventional and holistic modalities. Ask Dr. Jan