Many cat owners describe the relationship with their cat in anthropomorphic terms like child or best friend. Attributing such human social roles to cats might influence the interpretation of cat behavior and communicative cues. Over 1800 Dutch cat owners filled out an online survey concerning the relationship with, and behavior of, their own cat and beliefs about the emotional lives of cats in general. Owners were also presented with seven photographs of cats (four with reliable cues to identify an emotion and three neutral ones).

52% of the respondents described the relationship with their cat in human terms such as family member (52%), as a child (27%) or as best friend (6%) while 14% described their cat as a pet animal. Owners who described the relationship with their cat in human terms, more often a) assigned complex social emotions (such as jealousy and compassion) to cats and b) assigned emotions to neutral photographs. Owners with a realistic perception of cat emotions were better at correctly identifying the emotional photographs. Moreover, owners that attributed complex social emotions to cats in general had a higher tendency to attribute emotions to the neutral photographs.

Our study shows that the correct interpretation of feline emotional cues from photographs are negatively associated with owners’ anthropomorphic perception of cats. This study highlights the importance of educating owners about natural cat behavior and realistic views of the emotional life of (their) cats.

Read the full paper here: Bouma, E.M,C., Reijgwart, M.L., Martens, P., Dijkstra, A. (2023). Cat owners’ anthropomorphic perceptions of feline emotions and interpretation of photographsApplied Animal Behaviour Science, 2023, 106150,