Study: Dogs Communicate Distress To Humans Better Than Cats


New research shows that most people view the sound of a whimpering dog to be just as sad as the sound of a crying baby.


AARHUS, Denmark — A whimpering dog begging for table scraps or a content cat purring away are familiar scenes for pet owners, and most of the time they know exactly what their pets are trying to tell them. The bond between human and pet is a strong one, and now a new study conducted in Denmark concludes that pet owners develop a special sensitivity to all dogs’ and cats’ whines, whimpers, barks, and meows.

According to the study, based out of Aarhus University, dogs are more effective at conveying distress and negative emotion in their sounds than cats. Furthermore, dog and cat owners even rated the sound of a whimpering dog to be just as sad or emotionally compelling as a crying human baby.

“Pet ownership is associated with greater sensitivity to pet distress sounds, and it may be part of the reason why we are willing to spend large amounts of time and resources on our domestic companions. It might also explain why we find interacting with pets so rewarding, and are emotionally impacted by both positive communication signals, like purring and negative, like meows or whines”, explains first author Christine Parsons in a media release.

Over 500 young adults took part in the study, and researchers discovered that dog whines sounded “more negative” to dog or cat owners than people who don’t own any pets. However, cat meows only sounded especially sad to cat owners. This indicates that dogs do a better job of expressing their emotions and eliciting a sympathetic response. In fact, dog whines were considered “sadder” than cat meows across the board, regardless of participants’ pet ownership.

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“The result suggests that dogs, more effectively than cats, communicate distress to humans and that pet ownership is linked to greater emotional sensitivity to these sounds. For sounds that we need to respond to, like a dog that is utterly dependent on its human host for food and care, it makes sense that we find these sounds emotionally compelling,” Parsons elaborates.

Researchers pointed out that dog owners typically spend more time taking care of their companions than the average cat owner. Cats are much more independent animals, while dogs require a bit more day-to-day attention.

“This difference in animal dependence may explain why dog whines are rated as more negative than cat meows by all adults, including cat owners. Dogs may simply have more effective distress signals than cats,” comments Katherine Young, senior author on the study.

The study also dives into psychological differences among dog owners, cat owners, and people with no pets, but found no significant differences among the groups.

“For symptoms of anxiety, depression and self-reported experiences in close relationships, we found no differences between adults with and without pets. We’re suggesting that cat or dog ownership is not necessarily associated with individual differences in psychological health, at least as tested here,” Parsons concludes.

The study is published in the Royal Society Open Science.

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