Does your cat feel empathy for you? A new study aims to find out

University of Sussex

A grey cat yawns

Image credit to Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

The age-old question about whether cats feel empathy for their owners – or whether they just see them as useful providers of food and shelter – may soon be one step closer to finding an answer.

Researchers at the University of Sussex are recruiting cat and owner duos to take part in a study which looks at whether cats ‘catch’ yawns from their owners.

In human psychology, it is well established that yawns are contagious between people who see each other as part of the same social group. Previous research has shown that dogs can ‘catch’ yawns from their owners, and evidence of contagious yawning has been found between other social animals such as budgerigars, rats and chimpanzees. Recent research has also shown that lions communicate with each other by yawning.

Karen Hiestand is leading the experiment. She is a doctoral researcher in the Mammal Communication and Cognition Group who specialises in anthrozoology within the School or Psychology at the University of Sussex. Karen said:

“It’s clear that some cats have a special bond with their owners, but does empathy play a role in that bond?

“Contagious yawning has been linked to empathy in humans and this claim has also been debated for dogs that ‘catch’ human yawns.

“Domestic cats have evolved from a solitary ancestor whereas dogs are highly social and have socially evolved capacities. I hope this study will help us understand more about our relationships with these two species and their evolution into our most common animal companions.”

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