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Do cats know when your crying you’re sad?

Cats and humans have been living together for thousands of years. Over time, the bond between cats and their human companions has grown strong. Many cat owners feel their feline friends can sense their moods and emotions. But do cats actually recognize human emotional cues and alter their behavior in response? It’s a question cat lovers have long pondered.

Cats use a range of communication methods including vocalizations, body language, and pheromones to connect with humans. There’s evidence to suggest cats can detect human emotions like sadness, anger, happiness, and fear through visual and auditory cues. Cats may react differently when their owner is crying or upset. But whether cats truly feel empathy or have an awareness of human mental states is up for debate.

This article will explore the evidence around cats sensing human emotions, especially sadness and crying. We’ll look at:

Key Questions

– How do cats communicate with humans?
– What signals might indicate sadness or distress to a cat?
– How do cats typically behave when their owner is sad or crying?
– Do cats comfort their owners who are upset?
– Do cats actually feel empathy for human emotions?

By examining cat communication methods, behavioral studies, and accounts of cat-human interactions, we can gain insight into how much cats understand about human emotional states. Read on to learn more about the cat-human bond and how tuned in cats may be to your feelings.

How Cats Communicate With Humans

To determine if cats can recognize human emotional cues, we first have to understand how cats communicate with people. Cats use a variety of vocalizations, body language, pheromones, and behaviors to express themselves to humans and other animals. Here’s an overview of the main cat communication methods:


Cats make over 16 different vocalizations including:

– Meows
– Purrs
– Trills
– Chirps
– Growls
– Hissing
– Yowling

Kittens begin meowing at around 2 weeks old to get their mother’s attention. This behavior continues into adulthood as a way to communicate with humans. The meaning behind a meow can range from greeting, demanding food, expressing displeasure, and more. Meows tend to be louder, more frequent, and more urgent when a cat wants something.

Purring is one of the most well-known cat vocalizations. Cats may purr when content, while grooming, and even when stressed or in pain. The rhythmic purring sound seems to communicate reassurance and comfort.

Growls, hisses, and yowling are aggressive or defensive cat vocalizations. These sounds often communicate fear, anger, territorial warnings, and discomfort. Cats also express themselves using chirps, chattering, and trills.

Body Language

Cats rely heavily on body language to convey how they’re feeling. Here are some key feline body language signals:

– Tail position – Straight up signals confidence, straight down can mean anxiety, wagging shows irritation.
– Ear position – Flattened ears back expresses anger/fear, erect ears shows interest.
– Pupil dilation – Constricted pupils indicate aggression, dilated pupils communicate fear/interest.
– Whiskers – Relaxed whiskers signals contentment, pushed back is a sign of worry.
– Head position – Rubbing head on objects marks territory, head shaking shows displeasure.

Understanding subtle shifts in your cat’s body language helps you detect their mood. Changes in tail, ear, whisker, and head movements provide insight into how comfortable a cat feels in response to stimuli like a new person, environment change, noise, etc.


Cats have glands that produce pheromones or chemical scent signals. Pheromones communicate territorial markings, reproductive readiness, and contentment. When a cat feels safe and relaxed, pheromone secretions increase. Cat owners detect this as the typical “cat smell.” If a cat is stressed or anxious, pheromone production drops.

By sensing pheromone levels, cats may pick up on each other’s emotional states. Whether cats detect subtle shifts in human chemical secretions is still unclear. But changes in a cat owner’s scent could provide clues into their mood.


Cats exhibit certain behaviors to communicate with their owners. Some examples include:

– Rubbing – Cats have scent glands on their head, lips, chin, sides, and tail. When they rub against you, it marks you as safe and transfers their scent. This is a way cats show trust and affection.

– Kneading – The rhythmic pressing of paws on a soft surface replicates the motion kittens use while nursing. Many interpret this as a sign of contentment.

– Slow blinking – Also called a “cat kiss,” slow blinking shows affection and calmness. It signals to another cat they are not a threat.

– Exposing belly – When a cat rolls on its back to expose its belly, this indicates they are completely relaxed and trust you.

– Bringing gifts – Cats sometimes bring “gifts” like dead mice to their owner. Some believe this mimics their natural instinct to teach young to hunt and shows they care for you.

Paying attention to how often your cat exhibits friendly behaviors like rubbing, kneading, and exposing their belly provides clues into how comfortable they feel around you currently. Fearful or unwanted behaviors may decrease if a cat senses you are upset.

Signals That Indicate Sadness and Distress

Cats rely on all their communication methods including vocalizations, body language, pheromones, and behaviors to evaluate situations and interact with humans. Changes in the normal patterns may signal to a cat that something is wrong with their owner’s emotional state. Here are some cues that a cat could interpret as signs of human sadness or distress:


Humans produce tears in response to strong emotions like sadness, anger, joy and more. One study found cats react differently to human tears compared to water placed on the face. Cats were less likely to make physical contact with the tearful person. Their behaviors suggested the sound, smell, and appearance of human crying put them on alert.

Unusual Vocalizations

When someone is sad, they often speak in a quieter, lower tone of voice. Their speech patterns and word choices reflect their feelings. Cats seem able pick up on the audible differences that signal sadness through a person’s vocalizations.

Change in Scent

A person’s body chemistry changes under emotional distress. While subtle to the human nose, cats may detect differences in smell between a calm versus sad owner. Reactions like hissing, shying away, or avoidance could mean a cat finds their human’s emotional scent off-putting.

Minimal Eye Contact

Depressed or sad people tend to make less frequent eye contact. Since mutual gaze helps facilitate bonding between cats and humans, a lack of eye contact may signal something is amiss to a cat.

Body Language

Slumped posture, lack of movement, and slow response times often accompany human sadness. Cats familiar with their owner’s normal energy levels and body language may see sluggish gestures and minimal activity as an indicator of negative emotions.

Change in Routine

When experiencing sadness, people can experience increased sleep and isolation or a lack of interest in normal activities. Disruptions from regular feeding, play, and petting routines could leave a cat confused and concerned about their human friend.

Withdrawing from Touch

People feeling depressed often avoid or are slower to respond to physical affection. For cats used to regular petting and lap-sitting, this decrease in touch from their human can send the message something is wrong emotionally.

How Cats Typically React to a Crying, Upset Owner

Now that we’ve covered how cats communicate and the signals that may indicate human distress, how do cats actually behave when their owner is sad or crying?

Research suggests cat responses fall into a few categories when interacting with a distressed owner:

Increased alertness

One study exposed cats to a crying stranger vs. their own crying owner vs. a calmly speaking owner. When subjects heard their own owner crying, they responded with increased alertness. Cats stared more intently at the distressed person and their ears shifted forward to capture any important vocal cues. Their reactions indicated crying alerted them that something was wrong.

Approaching behaviors

Some cats respond to owner distress by approaching them and seeking contact. A crying owner may provoke rubs, nudges, and attempts to climb on the person’s lap. Cats who regularly show affection by sitting near, on, or next to their owners seem the most likely to offer this type of comfort.

No reaction

In the same crying owner study, a portion of cats had little observable reaction to the person’s distress. They continued resting or cleaning themselves, showing no interest in the crying sounds. While such cats still detected the crying, they chose not to actively respond.


Alternately, some cats withdraw from a distressed owner. Hiding under furniture, leaving the room, or shying away from contact are potential signs of avoidance. The crying sounds and chemical signals seem to unsettle these cats, so they retreat to a safe spot.


A minority of cats may react to owner distress with apparent agitation. Pacing, tail swishing, ears flattening backward, and crying vocalizations suggest anxiety. If the human’s sadness feels extreme or threatening, it can provoke nervousness and uncertainty about how to respond appropriately.

So in summary, increased alertness, approaching and comforting behaviors, avoidance, or agitation encompass the range of different cat reactions to human crying or sadness. Cats sense something is amiss through auditory and chemical cues, but their behavioral responses depend on their individual personality.

Do Cats Try to Actively Comfort Their Owners?

While many cats become more alert and attentive when a human companion cries, do they make an effort to actively calm and soothe their distressed owner?

Evidence of Comforting Behavior

Some scientific studies provide evidence of cats demonstrating comforting behaviors:

– In one study, cats whose owners simulated distress by crying loudly showed fewer signs of stress once the person stopped crying and began petting them quietly. Warm, gentle human touch seemed to relieve the cat’s agitation.

– Research conducted in Brazil reinforced that physical contact can provide a source of comfort to cats. When given a choice, study cats spent more time near silent, petting humans vs. people talking in an animated, excited manner.

– There are documented accounts of therapy cats who visit patients in hospitals, nursing homes, and other healthcare settings providing comforting physical contact and companionship to those dealing with pain, anxiety, or depression.

So it appears human touch like petting combined with a calm demeanor can in fact relax anxious cats. Cats may then reciprocate and offer their own presence as a comforting measure.

Anecdotal Examples

Along with formal studies, countless anecdotes from cat owners provide examples of perceived comforting behaviors:

– Many report when they are crying or visibly upset, their cat will climb onto their lap and rub its face against them in an affectionate manner.

– Some cats bring “gifts” like toys or dead prey to their owners who are distressed, possibly in an attempt to improve their mood.

– Cats who are normally aloof or independent sometimes uncharacteristically cuddle up to a human who is sad, sick, or weeping.

– Individuals remark their cat’s purring helps them feel calmer when experiencing anxiety, grief, or dealing with trauma.

While anecdotes don’t prove causation, they suggest certain cats can demonstrate behaviors geared towards comforting their humans in times of need.

Mixed Opinions Among Experts

Animal behavior experts have mixed opinions on whether cats purposefully aim to alleviate human distress through their actions:

– Skeptics assert cats are mainly self-serving creatures. Any “comforting” cat behaviors really arise from the cat’s instinctive desire to protect itself or receive food and affection from the human.

– Some argue comforting purrs or physical contact have become an adapted, learned behavior because humans positively reinforce this cat conduct with praise and rewards during times of distress.

– More optimistic experts believe cats form close bonds with their human families. This attachment leads them to offer tactile reassurance during emotional upset in the same way bonded cats comfort each other.

Since we cannot ask cats directly about their motivations, the question remains up for debate. But it seems plausible cats pick up on human emotional cues and some may attempt to provide comfort based on natural instincts and learned behaviors.

Do Cats Actually Experience Empathy?

The ultimate question is whether cats have true empathy – the ability to recognize and share the emotions of another being. Can they put themselves in a human’s shoes emotionally? Or do cats merely react to human upset based on learned associations and self-interest?

Defining Empathy in Animals

Empathy involves three key components:

1. Emotional Contagion – Being affected by and mirroring the emotional state of another
2. Sympathetic Concern – Recognizing another’s distress and wanting to ameliorate it
3. Perspective Taking – Ability to understand the other’s mental state and situation

Here’s how cats seem to demonstrate these capacities for empathy:

Emotional Contagion

– Cats can “catch” stress and anxiety from other felines and people, pointing to basic emotionally contagious responses.

Sympathetic Concern

– Many cats try to comfort or reassure distressed human companions through physical closeness and touch, suggestive of sympathy.

Perspective Taking

– Whether cats can mentally put themselves in a human’s situation is difficult to prove conclusively based on current evidence.

Theories on Cat Empathy

Scientists debate the extent of empathy cats likely experience:

– One view argues empathy is mainly reserved for humans and a few intelligent, social animal species like elephants and apes. Cat cognition is too limited.

– Critics claim cats are too solitary by nature to evolve complex empathetic abilities. Their reactions around upset humans represent fear or self-serving instinct, not true understanding.

– More progressive thinkers believe cats demonstrate at least primitive levels of emotional contagion, concern for others, and perspective taking. Their attachment to humans enables empathy.

– Cat defenders assert felines absolutely understand human emotional states and alter their behaviors in an attempt to make their human feel better during times of distress.

Overall the scientific community remains split on the depth of cats’ capacity for empathy. But cats do seem capable of some level of emotional perception and sharing with humans.

Key Takeaways: Do Cats Understand Human Emotion?

Reviewing what’s known about cat communication, human-cat interactions, and empathy points to some key conclusions:

– Cats can detect subtle vocal, visual, chemical, and behavioral human cues of sadness through sight, hearing, and smell.

– Cats likely perceive human crying as an alarming signal something is wrong based on increased alertness and reactions.

– Some cats actively respond to human distress by approaching and offering tactile comfort, while others withdraw. Individual personality plays a role.

– Current evidence suggests cats may demonstrate basic emotional contagion with humans but their perspective-taking abilities appear limited.

– While not fully scientifically proven, an empathetic-like bond seems to exist between some cats and their owners.

– Certain cats appear capable of providing a source of reassurance and stability for humans through companionship and close presence.

So in summary, most experts agree cats can recognize human emotional upset even if their understanding of the full mental state remains questionable. The unique relationship between cats and humans continues to be filled with affection, companionship, and a little bit of mystery. Cats may not be able to fully comprehend complex emotions like grief and depression. But they can still offer comfort during difficult times in their uniquely feline way.


The research to date suggests that while cats do not possess a complete human-like understanding of our inner emotional worlds, they do seem capable of detecting basic sadness and reacting accordingly. A cat’s perception of human emotions likely relies on an interplay between instinct, learned associations, and attachment.

Though debate continues on the extent of feline empathy, loving cat-human relationships prove cats can serve as sensitive, soothing companions when we need them most. Their ability to alert to our sadness through subtle cues and offer comfort is a powerful part of the enduring bond we share with these fascinating creatures. Whether feline comfort arises from empathy, instinct or learned response may not matter so much after all.