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Can Your Pet Read Your Emotions?

2020 has been fraught with emotional upheaval and lots of stress, and the world we currently live in has become a turbulent place. From a global pandemic and resulting economic recession to civic and political unrest, there has been a lot of uncertainty in all of our lives, and it certainly takes a toll on our overall emotional health.

A while back we examined why adopting a pet can improve your overall health, including your emotional health. But did you know that pets can read your emotions?

A 2018 study found that dogs can actually read their owners' faces and understand several different human emotions. In previous decades, it was thought dogs may only be repeating learned behavior without understanding it. But newer studies have shattered that misconception. Another recent study indicated that dogs “seem to be able to smell our emotional state and they then seem to trust our responses to the situation by adopting those emotional states as their own.”

And, while cats are typically viewed as much more aloof than their canine counterparts, newer research proves that our feline companions pay more attention than we give them credit for—indeed, cats have proven to be sensitive to human facial expressions and verbal tone, and seek cues from their owners in ambiguous situations.

Living in close contact with humans, domesticated pets, specifically cats and dogs, have developed unique socio-cognitive skills that enable them to interact and communicate efficiently with humans. In fact, cats and dogs have been bred as human companions for thousands of years, and some research indicates that, as a result of evolution, they are born with the ability to connect with people—something that does not seem to happen with their wild ancestors.

Studies have suggested that dogs do show empathy for each other and for their owners, though not everyone in the scientific community agrees on the degree to which dogs have these cognitive emotional abilities. Because dogs are sentient beings and are able to experience a range of emotions, some scientists and psychologists believe that they have the mental and emotional capacity of a toddler.

Cats, on the other hand, tend to respond in certain ways to specific stimuli because they’ve learned to associate certain facial expression with things like petting and treats. So, while they may not be emotionally intelligent enough to realize that you need comfort when you’re sad, they are receptive to the concept of learned behaviors. And, while it might be true that cats do not display as many empathetic behaviors as dogs, that's not to say that a cat's loving purrs can't have a positive affect on our emotional state. In fact, spending time with cats and dogs alike boost serotonin and can significantly improve mood. As a result, there's a growing trend towards having therapy pets (both cats and dogs).

So, although our pets might be able to sense when we’re feeling blue, the reason they tend to comfort us may be a learned response based on our expressions and other social cues, indicating that comforting their human companions might not be completely deliberate, at least in the way we understand the full range of emotion based interactions.

While this might feel a little disappointing, it’s important to remember that all mammals have emotional systems in place meant to help them survive, and that it’s completely normal that our pets’ emotional intelligence is different than our own. Animals reportedly use their emotional competency for basic survival needs such as seeking food, addressing fear responses, and displaying care-taking behaviors towards their young. These fundamental emotional systems may not reach the human depths of feelings like shame, love, or joy, but that's not to say that basic emotional states can't be understood by our furry friends.

So, what does this mean for us as pet owners?

These findings confirm what many of us already know about our own pets, and it is a great step in helping us understand why pets seem so remarkably in tune and empathetic to their owner’s emotional needs.

Ultimately, it is important to remember that stress and sadness affects us all differently. And even though they might not understand our emotions completely, our pets can be great sources of comfort, and seeking their affection might be a healthy coping mechanism for getting past our blue moods.

So, what do you think? Do you think your pet can sense your emotions? Do you have any firsthand experiences?

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