Companion Animal Guardians And Emotional Empathy
Stretching through time, the relationship between humans and our companion dogs and cats has shaped how these animals communicate with us. Dogs bark to seek contact, and cats meow at us humans (but don’t meow as adults in the wild). Studies have shown that humans are quite good at interpreting both growls and barks from dogs, but we’re not so great at understanding cat meows – although people who live with cats do better.
Building on such research, this study looked at how both companion animal guardians and non-guardians interpret emotion in companion animals. The study specifically examined distress calls of cats (“meow”) and dogs (whimpering). They also looked at depression and anxiety among people with and without companion animals. Through this, the study authors hoped to discover whether there’s any truth to the stereotypes of cat guardians (often thought of as lonelier and sadder than dog guardians), and to determine whether our emotional state impacts how we interpret other animals’ distress calls.
The study used a total of 80 recorded distress sounds from the Oxford Vocal Sounds Database: 15 cat, 15 dog, 21 adult, and 19 infant distress sounds. All sounds were without background noise and were between 1 and 2 seconds long.
561 undergraduate students at the University of California, Los Angeles took part in this in-person study. Almost half of participants (47%) were guardians to either a cat or a dog, of whom 184 lived with a dog only, 31 lived with a cat only, and 49 lived with a dog and a cat. After listening to each sound on headphones, participants rated how happy or sad they thought the sound was on a visual analog scale. Once they had rated the sounds, participants completed three questionnaires to assess their levels of depression and anxiety, and their attachments (i.e. secure or insecure).
The researchers found no significant differences in rates of depression, anxiety, or attachment between people with and without companion animals. This goes against the stereotypes of companion animal ownership, e.g. that cat owners are particularly sad. Likewise, they found no relationship between an individual’s depression or anxiety and how they rated emotions of cat and dog noises. However, they did find that people with less secure attachments rated cat and dog noises slightly more positively, suggesting they were less attuned to an animal’s distress.
Generally, people with companion animals rated both cat and dog noises more negatively than people without. People with cats, in particular, rated meows as sad. Participants rated dog whines as much sadder than cat meows overall, with dog whines rated as equal in sadness to infant cries. The authors suggest that this could be due to the demographics of participants, most of whom had no children. The difference between the perceived sadness of cat and dog sounds may be due to the greater independence of cats, who are semi rather than fully domesticated. Since dogs rely more on their guardians, effective communication may be more important.
This study tells us more about the relationship between humans and our closest and most common companion animals. It suggests that those of us who live with companion animals are more sensitive to their emotional cues. For the cat lovers among us, it provides evidence of what we already know – that, of course, living with a cat doesn’t make you a lonely or sad person.