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Does my cat understand when I cry?

Many cat owners have wondered if their feline companions actually understand human emotions like sadness and crying. As extremely observant creatures, cats definitely notice changes in our behavior and energy when we’re upset. But do cats truly recognize human emotions and consciously empathize with us? Or is their reaction to our tears purely instinctual? While we can’t get inside a cat’s mind to know for sure, research provides some clues into cats’ capacity for emotional perception and empathy.

Do cats understand human facial expressions?

Studies suggest cats can recognize human facial expressions, an important prerequisite for understanding our emotions. In one study, cats were shown photographs of human faces with either a smiling expression or an angry expression. The cats tended to spend more time looking at the smiling faces, suggesting they could distinguish between the two emotions.

Cats also rely heavily on visual cues from our eyes and mouth to interpret our mood and intent. For example, wide open eyes can signal fear or surprise, while narrowed eyes may convey anger or aggression to a cat. Soft, relaxed mouths signal friendliness, while tense, stretched mouths suggest upset or anger. Cats also associate eye contact and a soft, high-pitched tone of voice with positive interactions. So they have the visual recognition skills to determine our emotional state from facial expressions, vocal cues and body language.

Can cats detect human emotions?

Cats can pick up on surprisingly subtle emotional cues from humans. In one experiment, cats were kept in a room with their owner for 2 minutes. Some owners were instructed to simply ignore the cat. Others engaged gently with their cat. And others were told to scold or stare angrily at their cat (without touching them). When the owner left the room, an observer watched the cat’s behavior.

Cats responded extremely differently based on their owner’s previous emotions, even when the interactions were very brief. Cats of owners who had scolded or stared angrily behaved more stressfully. They groomed themselves less, shook their heads and bodies more, and avoided contact from the observer. Cats of owners who had simply ignored them also seemed mildly stressed. Meanwhile, cats of owners who had interacted positively remained relaxed and sociable.

This suggests cats have the ability to pick up on human emotional states based on very subtle signals. Our tone of voice, posture, smell and minute facial expressions all provide cats with information to determine our mood and intent.

Do cats understand the meaning behind crying?

Many cat owners report that their cats seem concerned or attentive when they cry. But does this mean cats truly understand that we’re sad? Or do they just respond instinctively to the unusual sound of crying without comprehending the emotion behind it? Since we can’t interview cats, we can’t know for sure. But some interesting research provides clues that cats may relate to the meaning of human vocalizations.

In one study, cats heard either cat meows or human baby cries played from a speaker. The cats responded differently based on the type of sound. When they heard fellow cat meows, the cats turned their ears around to locate the source and seemed curious and attentive. But when they heard human baby cries, the cats appeared concerned. Their tails twitched rapidly and their ears lowered and turned back. Some tried to find or approach the baby.

This suggests cats don’t just instinctively react to crying as an unusual sound. They seem to recognize it as a meaningful signal of distress that warrants investigation or caregiving behavior. So it’s reasonable to think cats may relate crying to sadness or distress in a similar way. Their empathetic behaviors when we cry – coming to comfort us, licking our faces, purring nearby – could reflect a true understanding of our sadness on some level.

Why do cats react to human tears and crying?

If cats do comprehend human emotions, why does our sadness elicit a caring response from them? Here are some possible explanations:


Cats have an instinct to care for helpless kittens. When they hear cries from a human baby, some may experience a reflexive caregiving response.


Over time, cats learn to associate the sound of their owner’s distress with getting comfort and care from them. By returning the favor, the cat may be trying to elicit similar care.


Cats that share a close bond with their owner have an attachment and attraction toward them. When we cry, they may come over out of concern for the breakdown of this relationship.


Some cat behaviorists believe cats feel a primal form of empathy that allows them to perceive and be affected by human emotions. Their caregiving response reflects a desire to alleviate our suffering.

Do all cats respond to human tears?

Not all cats demonstrate a noticeable empathetic reaction when humans cry. Here are some key factors that determine a cat’s response:


Some cat breeds have more innate empathetic tendencies. For example, Siamese cats are known for their vocal, affectionate nature and sensitivity to emotions.


Well-socialized cats that have had positive experiences with humans from kittenhood are more attentive and responsive when people are upset. Under-socialized, anxious cats may distance themselves when humans cry.


Cats that have a close, affectionate relationship and attachment with their owner care more about their distress. Cats that do not share a strong bond may ignore human tears.


Just like people, some cats are naturally more empathetic, sensitive and people-oriented than others based on their innate personality.

Breed Tendency to respond to human tears
Siamese High
Persian Moderate
Maine Coon Low

This table shows cat breeds with varying tendencies to respond to human tears, based on breed personality profiles. Siamese cats tend to be vocal and people-oriented, making them more likely comfort-seekers. Persian cats have moderate empathy levels. Maine Coon cats can be fairly independent and aloof.

How can I tell if my cat understands my emotions?

Here are some signs your cat may genuinely understand and respond appropriately when you’re sad or crying:

– Your cat comes over to you and pays attention when you’re upset, crying or arguing.

– Your cat nuzzles, licks or gently paws at you when crying, as if trying to soothe you.

– Your cat meows in a concerned tone or purrs and rubs against you when you’re sad.

– Your cat brings you a “gift” (toy or prey) when you seem distressed.

– Your cat gazes at you intently with ears erect when you’re upset or crying.

– Your cat becomes clingy and stays close to you when you seem sad.

Key behaviors that suggest empathy

Cats that exhibit empathetic behaviors in response to human emotions:

– Seek contact and try to comfort
– Gaze intently
– Chirp or meow in a concerned tone
– Nuzzle or lick tears
– Purr in soothing way
– Stay close

Behaviors that suggest mere instinct

Cats who are just reacting instinctively to crying:

– Seem startled by the sound
– Back away
– Freeze in place
– Watch from a distance
– Seem unsure how to respond

How can I help my cat empathize with my feelings?

You can strengthen your cat’s capacity for empathy by:

– Developing a close bond through play, training and quality time together

– Positively reinforcing caring, gentle behaviors from your cat

– Getting them used to human emotional cues like crying from kittenhood

– Explaining out loud why you’re sad or crying so they associate the sounds with a “meaning”

– Rewarding responses you want to encourage, like coming to sit near you when crying

– Remaining calm and letting them come to you rather than forcing interaction

– Being consistent with emotional cues and responses over time

The bottom line

While we can’t know for certain, cats likely have some ability to perceive, understand and respond appropriately to human emotions like sadness, anxiety and crying. Their empathetic behaviors suggest cats don’t merely reflexively react to tears. They seem to recognize crying as meaningful, which motivates caring behaviors to comfort us or make us feel better. A close bond with your cat facilitates their ability to tune into your emotions and provide empathy and support when you need it most.