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.

The study

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.

You can read the full article on

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?

11 Comments on Does Your Mood Affect Your Cats?

  1. Just read this article and a few of the comments and I know my cat looks to me for cues. We live in an apartment complex and there is a pool. Lately there have been large pool toys in the pool or on the edge. There was a new pool toy on the edge near the pool a few days ago when She and I were walking together (I walk her on a leash). She backed up and looked at it as though she thought it would bite her. She would not walk past. So I told her it was a new pool toy and calmly walked towards it and touched it. I placed my hand on it and pressed gently and rubbed it. Then she nosed closer and sniffed it. And it never bothered her again. It is pretty fun to explore with your cat!

  2. I do not need to repeat what you already know, poor Magellan was picking up on our stress. Thankfully he always puts a smile on my face. I try to keep the house as stress free as possible.

  3. Having had the experience of expensive ER and specialist visits due to my older kitty being stressed (and depressed) as a response to my own stress and depression, I wholeheartedly agree with this concept.

    I have always known that she was pretty well in tune with my feelings as she would always cheer me up when I was having depressive episodes and would keep an eye on me when I was having major back issues (i.e. she would stay right by my side when i was in pain, and would take the stairs one-by-one without running ahead during the times I could barely walk; as if waiting to catch me if I fell. Lol)

    But when she got sick, that’s when I realized just how truly bonded she and I are. She was stressed because I was; in turn, I was stressed because she wasn’t feeling well, and neither of us could function properly. It really upset me when the specialist told me she was just stressed, because I felt like it was my fault for not being able to manage my own.

    That forced me to step back and check out for a couple months to get my mood together. It also gave us plenty of cuddle time and, as I felt better, she became less skittish, started eating normally and chatting like her old self. Now I have my kitty back and I love her and her sister more than anything in the world (sorry human family). 🙂

  4. I had two cats. We were very close. I got sick. I was getting light headed. I didn’t want to trip over my one cat and kept telling him get out of my way. I was not trying to be mean to him and he did no harm. I felt bad and I had him come over to me and I gave him a kiss and said I’m sorry. When I ended up in the hospital both of my cats were not feeling good. Daisy was very sick and Tigger was not well either. My sister had to put them down because of there health. I miss them both so so so much.

  5. My Maine Coon is a “scaredy cat”. If he only realized how big he is, he’d be on to something. Meanwhile, if ANYTHING is out of place – such as a sock on the floor – he proceeds with tripidation…the sniffing of the air, head bobbing, slinking…:-) It seems to me that it’s helpful to him if I walk up to the mysterious object and tap it or confidently touch it with my foot while talking to him. He immediately calms down and will then approach to check it out for himself. It makes sense that our cats would pick up on our cues.

    • I’ve found the same thing with Allegra, who can be a bit of a scaredy cat at times. If I act like whatever she’s reacting to is no big deal, she calms down quickly.

  6. My human is a nervous driver, so is it no surprise that while I love arriving at new places, I don’t love having to be driven there? I do have to give her credit, she is trying to work on her attitude, but it’s hard for her.

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