Is the secret to cat–human communication all in the eyes?

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The commonly used idiom ‘the eyes speak volumes’ is normally attributed to human communication, however this expression also rings true for our beloved feline friends. Flying in the face of the stereotypical view that cats are largely independent and aloof creatures, a new study has found that, just like children and dogs that look to their parents and owners for reassurance when faced with unfamiliar objects or situations, cats can also take behavioural cues from their ‘human parents’. This communication ability to analyse, and react to emotional responses, such as facial expressions and tone of voice, from a person in a position of trust, is called ‘social referencing‘.

Although there had been several studies showing that young children and dogs demonstrate social referencing behaviour, there hadn’t been much research about this particular aspect of a cat’s psyche. With this in mind, researchers from the University of Milan set out to discover whether cats also have this very humanlike communication ability by recruiting 24 cats and their owners to take part in a study.

The experiment

Each feline and its human companion were to enter a room containing a potentially scary object that the animals had never encountered before – in this case, an electric fan with green, plastic ribbons attached. The room had a screen at one end, which hid a video camera and also acted as a barrier for the cats (although they could see behind it); the barrier also marked the only exit to the room.


For the first phase of the experiment, the owners were asked to maintain a neutral air, thus promoting the cat’s natural instinct to explore the room.

For the second stage of the experiment, the researchers split the test subjects into two groups. They instructed the first group of cat owners to behave in a positive manner towards the fan, using a happy tone of voice and calm facial expressions. The second group were told to react to the fan in a negative way, exhibiting signs of impatience and restlessness in their tone of voice and facial expressions.

The results

During the first ‘neutral’ phase of the experiment, the researchers observed more than three-quarters of the cats (79%) looking alternately between the fan and owner, seeming to support the fact that the cats were searching for approval or reassurance from their owners – thus displaying the use of social referencing communication. (This figure also closely matched results for dogs tested under similar conditions in the past).

However, it was the reaction of the cats in the negative group that was so significant: conditioned by the discomfort expressed by the owners, the cats tended to divide their focus between the fan and the screen, showing their irritation and wish to depart. This clearly showed that the cats changed their behaviour in response to their owners’ emotional messages.

Responding to these dramatic results, Dr. Isabella Merola, one of the veterinarians involved in the study, said: Although more research is needed to study how the cats respond to our voice, our posture and our facial expressions, it is clear that they respond to the emotions of humans, more than we expect.”


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