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As a pet parent, you're never truly alone. It seems as if your cat or dog just knows when you need a snuggle or a hug. But is your pet aware of those emotional moments, or in other words, do dogs and cats have empathy?
Cuddling in your lap and giving you a lick are just a couple of ways that your fur baby shows you that they're tuned into your emotions. There's no denying that cats and dogs communicate with their human families on an emotional level. The question is whether this behavior means that they have empathy.
What Is Empathy?
Having empathy means being able to perceive and identify with another being's emotions, such as sharing in their sadness or joy. This can take the form of crying when you see someone cry or smiling when you see someone smile.
Do Dogs Have Empathy?
In a study on dog empathy published by Animal Cognition, researchers investigated the phenomenon of emotional contagion in dogs. Emotional contagion is defined as someone "catching" another's emotions. This study revealed that dogs respond differently to negative emotional sounds, like crying, versus positive emotional sounds, like laughing. It showed that dogs can match a person's emotional behavior, which is pretty amazing.
Another study in Animal Cognition revealed that dogs even display empathetic behavior toward strangers who are pretending to cry. Rather than shying away from the strangers, the dogs nuzzled and even licked the people who the dogs perceived to be in distress. The researchers who conducted the study, however, interpreted this behavior as an example of emotional contagion as well as a result of being rewarded for similar behavior in the past.
There are also indications that your dog's behavior change as a result of your emotions. For instance, if you're scared of the sound of thunder, your dog may recognize that fear and interpret it as something they should also be fearful of and start to shake or hide when a thunderstorm rolls in. Noticing that your dog's adept at picking up on your emotions can play a big role when you're training them.
Do Cats Have Empathy?
This question is a bit trickier to answer because, although they've been domesticated for nearly 12,000 years, cats tend to be more independent creatures than dogs. There simply haven't been many studies performed on cats, empathy and emotions — but that's starting to change.
BBC Earth, citing several studies, notes that while cats can learn to read their humans' facial expressions, this doesn't necessarily mean that they have empathy. Rather, it's likelier that cats have learned to associate their pet parents' positive emotions with rewards.
But despite this lack of measurable empathy, cats are still adept at picking up on nuanced human emotions. You just might not always notice your cat's responses to your emotions. Sometimes, it's all about reading a cat's body language. Ask any pet parent whose cat has curled up beside them during an emotionally charged situation. From placing their paws on your face to the "I love you" slow blink, your feline friend subtly shows their affection for you in a variety of ways. In fact, if they have the right temperament and social skills, your kitty could make a great service cat!
Empathy is a very human attribute, but there's no doubt that your furry friend is there for you during the highs, the lows and every moment in between.
Christine Brovelli-O'Brien, Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, STEAM educator, professional member of the Cat Writers' Association (CWA), and a devoted pet parent. She writes about pets, education, and STEM-y stuff. Her work also has appeared in NIU STEM Read, Fit Pregnancy, What to Expect When You're Expecting Word of Mom, and Care.com. Find and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @brovelliobrien