Communicating with cats and dogs

Our research explores how cats and dogs communicate with humans and their understanding of human emotional and gestural cues.


Prof Karen McComb with her cat

Karen McComb is an owner and lover of cats and has long had an interest in investigating how we can best communicate with them. She has collaborated with past PhD students and postdocs in taking forward this work (Ben Charlton, Tasmin Humphrey, Leanne Proops, Anna Taylor and Christian Wilson). Current PhD student Karen Hiestand is now looking at empathy between cats and humans, and Jemma Forman is finding innovative ways of exploring cat cognitive abilities.

Our initial research in this area explored how cats use solicitation purring to enhance the level of care they receive from their human owners. We showed that a high-frequency acoustic element embedded in the otherwise low-frequency purr was responsible for creating a sense of urgency in human listeners. It appears that this high-frequency element, at around the same frequency as a baby cry, is difficult for humans to ignore because of a sensory predisposition to nurture their own offspring.

We conducted two further studies that investigated how a form of visual signalling – slow-blinking – can serve as a means of positive emotional communication between cats and humans. Slow blink sequences typically involve a series of half-blinks followed by either a prolonged eye narrow or an eye closure. We showed that not only do cats respond to human slow blinking by slow blinking themselves, but they are also more likely to approach a human who has slow blinked at them.

In a follow-on study, we found that cats in a rescue shelter who were more responsive to a researcher slow blinking at them were adopted more quickly by members of the public.

We're currently investigating cross-species empathy by testing whether cats are able to catch human yawns and how cats (and dogs) respond to human emotional distress. In addition, Karen Hiedstand is collaborating with Robin Banerjee, using interview and survey work to understand human attitudes about companion animal empathy.

Jemma Forman and Dave Leavens are also investigating how cats use communication to enlist their caregivers’ assistance in solving problems – and deriving novel cognitive tests to better suit the investigation of cat cognitive abilities.

Our cat research has received widespread media attention including featuring on BBC TV news, the Radio 4 Today Programme and the CBC documentary ‘Lion in your living room’. Our slow-blink work was ranked number 35 in the Altmetric Top 100 for 2020.


About Dogs Clark and Leavens

Emotional and cognitive responses to human non-verbal cues 

Cross-species empathy

Human relationships with dogs and cats are the most common, and for many, the most meaningful non-human animal interactions we have. Empathy is an evolved trait that facilitates group cohesion and it is related to closeness and familiarity. Empathy involves the sharing of emotional state and the provision of support or help.

We're investigating whether dogs and cats experience and display empathy in response to human emotional distress and are also exploring human attitudes regarding companion animal empathy. This work forms part of Karen Hiestand’s PhD research.


Cognitive responses

A systematic difference in how organisms’ understanding of human pointing is tested with primates and with dogs is that primates are usually tested through cages. This means that it's ambiguous whether the typical superior performance of dogs is attributable to their domestication history or the different testing situation.

In this study, Hannah Clark and Dave Leavens reported that the presence of the barrier did suppress the performance of the dog, suggesting that much previous research, which did not control for the presence of cage mesh in the study of primates, may have misidentified an effect of barriers for a ‘true’ species difference. 

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