Humans have formed an extraordinary bond with certain animals. This bond is a product of years of co-evolution that has nurtured a deep, non-verbal understanding between us and our pets. We share our lives, homes and, often, our emotions with these animals. The fact that two-thirds of U.S. households choose to keep a pet is a testament to this human-animal connection.
Some studies even show how transformative keeping a pet can be for someone struggling through psychological difficulties. For instance, a participant of the study reported that her dog was able to sense her distress as she was crying, choosing to lie next to her and “lick away her tears.”
Dogs and cats are the most popular pets in the U.S., with dogs slightly edging out cats in terms of popularity. This preference for dogs over cats is often attributed to the unconditional love and companionship dogs offer, aligning with the mental health benefits they provide, such as encouraging physical activity and outdoor time for their owners. Cats, on the other hand, are known for their stress-reducing qualities, offering a different kind of companionship that many find equally rewarding.
Recognizing and responding to these unique traits in our pets is key to strengthening our bond with them.
Your Dog Needs A More Emphatic Communication Style
Dog owners sometimes claim that their dogs understand human speech. This isn’t completely off-base, but science tells us it’s probably not the words they understand, it’s the emotion behind them.
A 2020 study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that dogs can catch and share the emotions of their human partners, especially if they have a long and close relationship. The study measured the heart rate variability of dogs and owners and found that they synchronized under stressful conditions. This suggests that dogs can empathize with humans and vice versa.
According to the study, dogs can perceive and respond to the emotional states of their human partners by using various cues like:
- Facial expressions
- Body language
When talking to your dog, you should try to use these cues to convey your emotions clearly and consistently. For example, you can smile and use a high-pitched voice when you praise your dog, or frown and use a low-pitched voice when you express displeasure. You can also use physical contact, such as petting, hugging or stroking, to express your affection or comfort your dog. By being more emphatic, you can help your dog understand your intentions and expectations, and strengthen your bond with your dog.
Cats Respond Better To You Mimicking Them
Unlike dogs, cats are more subtle in their emotional expressions, and they may not always show obvious signs of distress or happiness. So, you should not expect your cat to react the same way as your dog to your emotional cues, or to display the same emotions as you do.
Cats have their own unique personalities and preferences, and they may not always want to interact with you or follow your commands. By being more respectful of your cat’s autonomy and individuality, you can help your cat develop a positive and trusting relationship with you.
A 2021 review of quantitative studies found that cats can use some of the same signals that they use with other cats when interacting with humans, such as:
- Raising their tails upright as a sign of friendly intentions
- Head-rubbing to mark humans with their scent
- Closing their eyes slowly to indicate relaxation and trust
- Meowing and purring to solicit attention or food
Interestingly, cats may vocalize more frequently with humans than with other cats, and they may vary the pitch and intensity of their calls to convey different messages. Cats may also adjust their behavior to the human’s mood, personality and preferences. For example, cats may vocalize and rub more often on a depressive owner, or initiate more interactions with a female or elderly owner.
When talking to your cat, you should try to pay attention to these signals and respond accordingly. For example:
- Return the slow blink to show your cat that you trust them
- Use a soft voice and gentle touch to calm your cat
- Raise your eyebrows or tilt your head to express curiosity or interest
Dogs and cats interact with humans in their unique ways, reflecting their evolutionary backgrounds. Cats are, generally, aloof and independent and cannot be easily influenced by our emotional displays, while dogs are highly receptive to emphatic communication. Understanding and responding aptly to these distinctions is vital in forging stronger bonds with our pets. Remember, effective communication with animals can sometimes be a long process, but it offers rewarding companionship and a fascinating window into their pure, unspoken world.