Studies have shown that our stress can affect our cats to the point of impacting their health, but so far, studies about “social referencing,” the fancy term for the tendency of a person to look to a significant other in an ambiguous situation in order to obtain clarifying information, have only been done in dogs. New research conducted at the University of Milan in Italy suggests that cats may also use social referencing.
NPR reports that in the study, which included 24 cats and their guardians, an electric fan with plastic green ribbons attached, was set up in a room with a screen at one end that hid a video camera; the screen also acted as a barrier for the cats (though they could see behind it) and marked the only way out of the room. “The aim,” the authors state, “was to evaluate whether cats use the emotional information provided by their owners about a novel/unfamiliar object to guide their own behavior towards it.”
Once the cats were allowed to explore the room, cat guardians were asked first to regard the fan with neutral affect, then to respond either positively or negatively to it. In either case, the guardian alternated gaze between the fan and the cat. In the positive group, guardians used happy expressions and voice tones, and approached the fan; in the negative group, the expressions and voice tone were fearful, and the guardians moved away from the fan.
The study clearly showed that the cats relied on their guardians for emotional clues when faced with unfamiliarity.
What does it mean?
The findings of this study don’t come as a surprise to me. I see every day how much my own mood is reflected in how Allegra and Ruby act. Both are highly sensitive cats (they are, after all, torties!). If I’m nervous or stressed about something, they tend to act more insecure than when I’m calm and relaxed. I also believe that the closer the bond between cat and human, the stronger this “social referencing” behavior will be.
This behavior is also seen in many cats when the time comes for a vet visit. How many times have you wondered how your cat could possibly know that you’re getting ready to put her in the carrier? It’s probably because you’re nervous and stressed about the idea of a vet visit, and your cat picks up on your attitude.
How our mood affects our cats
I frequently write about the importance of a positive mindset in my Conscious Cat Sunday columns, primarily with a focus on how it impacts your life. This study would suggest that it’s not just good for us to have a positive mindset and maintain a sense of calm, it also benefits our cats.
Barbara J. King, an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary who is the guardian of five indoor cats, two outdoor cats and a colony of eleven former feral cats and the author of the NPR article, asked the study’s lead author, Isabella Merola, whether cat guardians should be more aware of our emotions, tone of voice, and facial expressions around our cats. “Of course we should,” said Merola, “in particular in a situation of uncertainty and in new situations (for example in new environments or in presence of new objects). Further studies are needed to better investigate this communication and the valence of voice vs. facial expression or body posture, but owners can surely help their cats with positive emotions in new situations.”
If ever there was a situation where cats and humans can help each other live better lives, this is it. By managing our own mood and emotions, we not only benefit ourselves, we also help our cats.
Do your cats pick up on your moods?