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Do Dogs and Cats Have the Same Emotional Responses?

Compared to dog owners, cat owners observe fewer complex emotions in their pets.

Andy McLemore/Creative Commons License
Source: Andy McLemore/Creative Commons License

"I wish our cat made an effort to be part of our family in the same way that our dog does." There was a note of frustration in my colleague's voice as he took a sip of coffee and continued, "For example, Allie [his Golden retriever] seems to understand and feel friendship for me while my cat, Kenya, doesn't even seem to recognize when I am paying attention to her and certainly never seems to show much in the way of friendly feelings toward anybody in the family except when she's hungry. I think if I could crawl into her mind I would find that she just views us as caretakers who provide food and shelter for her. Is this a real difference between cats and dogs or do I just have an inappropriate personality when it comes to living with a cat?"

Issues about behavioral differences between dogs and cats have been the fodder for innumerable casual conversations, and it may be up in the top 100 topics for discussion along with relationships, sex, and politics. Usually when this subject comes up the arguments are informal, based on everyday observations rather than data. But every now and then a small piece of research comes out which allows us to throw a bit of science into the discussion. So it is now since there is a new report which may help to explain my colleague's feelings about his canine and feline companions.

To begin with I assured him that although there are personality differences between "dog people" and "cat people" (click here for more about that) his observations about the emotional responses of dogs and cats are consistent with the observations of other pet owners. The most recent report of data about behavioral differences between dogs and cats comes from the journal Behavioural Processes, and it describes an investigation headed by Minori Arahori of the Psychology Department at the Graduate School of Letters at Kyoto University in Japan.

As is typical of several earlier studies, the data collected involved a survey of dog and cat owners and attempted to gather their opinions about the emotions showed by their pets. These particular pet owners owned either a dog or a cat and were asked to describe certain behaviors that they observed in their companion animals.

The survey began with an open ended question which asked the pet owners to write a paragraph about the relationship to their dog or cat. This data was then analyzed to determine whether the person considered their pet to be "a member of the family". It turns out that the majority of people tend to consider both dogs and cats to be "family", however the feeling is much stronger for dogs. Dogs are 15 percent more likely to be described as family members (73 percent for cats versus 88 percent for dogs).

The pet owners were then asked to rate whether they thought that their pet showed the basic emotions of happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise or disgust using a graded scale. After that they were asked whether they thought that their pet showed some of the more complex emotions including affection, friendship, sympathy, compassion, pity, jealousy and hate.

The results showed that both of dog owners and cat owners felt that they observed the basic emotions of happiness, anger, fear, surprise and disgust in their pets and there was little difference between the two species. The only basic emotion where there was a difference between dogs and cats appeared to be sadness, with the results showing that dogs were more likely to demonstrate that emotion.

When it comes to the higher, more complex social emotions, however, there appears to be a marked difference between dogs and cats. In every case where there was a statistically significant difference it showed that dogs were more likely to demonstrate these emotions. Thus dogs were more likely to show sympathy, compassion, and pity. This is actually an important finding since these three emotions are associated with empathy. Empathy is the ability to recognize another person's feelings and emotions and it often involves treating those emotions as if they were your own. So these results support the other data that show that dogs are much more likely than cats to try to provide comfort when people are depressed or unhappy and thus are much more suitable to be therapy animals. Also, consistent with my colleague's observations, was the finding that dogs were also more likely to be seen as demonstrating the emotion of friendship.

There was one other interesting significant difference that the pet owners seem to notice, and that was that dogs seemed to respond much more to the attentional state of their owners. In other words cats don't seem to care very much, or certainly don't seem to respond, when you are paying attention to them.

The authors of this study conclude that "compared to dog owners, cat owners perceive their pets as less emotional." This difference in emotionality has to do with demonstrating the higher, more complex, emotions rather than the basic simple emotions.

Of course this data is based on the observations and interpretations of typical dog and cat owners rather than on behavioral evaluations by trained scientific observers. On the other hand, while they are not scientists these are the people who live with these animals and observe and interact with them on a daily basis. In any event this new data does seem to be consistent with the some previous research findings and so it probably provides another interesting bit of information to use in your next conversation about the differences in the behaviors of dogs and cats.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Gods, Ghosts and Black Dogs; The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

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Minori Arahori, Hika Kuroshima, Yusuke Hori, Saho Takagi, Hitomi Chijiiwab, Kazuo Fujita (2017). Owners' view of their pets' emotions, intellect, and mutual relationship: Cats and dogs compared.Behavioural Processes 141, 316–321