Why Do Cats React to Human Tears? The Surprising Science Behind Cats’ Responses to Crying

Cats Have a Nuanced Response to Human Crying

Research shows that cats have a nuanced response to human crying and can distinguish between different emotional sounds made by humans. Cats react differently when their owners are crying versus when they are laughing or making other noises. This suggests cats have some capacity to perceive the emotional content behind human vocalizations.

According to a study from the University of Sussex, cats can recognize the difference between positive emotional sounds like laughter and negative emotional sounds like crying or screaming. The researchers found that cats responded with more concern and caregiving behaviors when they heard humans crying as opposed to laughing or speaking neutrally (1).

Cats seem especially attuned to crying because it signals distress in humans. One theory is that cats have evolved to pay attention to human infant crying since that is a way human babies communicate their needs. This predisposes cats to react to their owners’ crying even though adult human tears can indicate more complex emotions like sadness, grief or pain.

Overall, research indicates crying triggers more caregiving and comforting responses in cats compared to other human vocalizations. Cats try to make sense of why their human is crying based on the context and may offer physical affection or soothing purrs to show concern.

(1) https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(20)31008-1

Cats May Misinterpret Crying as a Request for Attention

Cats often associate human crying with demanding attention. When humans cry, it can trigger caregiving behavior in cats. They recognize the sound as communicating some type of need or distress. But cats may struggle to grasp the complex emotional reasons behind crying. Instead, they interpret it as a request for attention or care from them (https://cats.com/do-cats-know-when-you-are-sad).

Cats frequently respond to crying by approaching the person and offering comforting behaviors. They may meow, purr loudly, rub their head against the crying person, or even try to sit on their lap. These behaviors all stem from the cat’s instinct to nurture and reassure those signaling distress. While well-intentioned, this can frustrate crying humans who wish to be left alone. Cats struggle to understand those complex social cues. Their caregiving impulse takes over when they hear the sounds of human crying (https://www.dailypaws.com/cats-kittens/behavior/cat-psychology/do-cats-know-when-you-are-sad).

Crying Can Signal Distress and Elicit Concern from Cats

Cats recognize crying as a sign of distress. They exhibit cautious or worried behaviors around crying. Cats try to understand the situation.

According to How does a cat react to a crying owner?, some cats may approach crying owners cautiously or slowly to assess the situation. They are attempting to figure out why their human companion is in distress.

As discussed in Do Cats Know When You Are Sad?, cats staring intently at crying humans are trying to comprehend the auditory and visual signals. Their wary posture and intense focus suggests concern over the crying.

Cats do not have a natural understanding of human crying. But they can still recognize it as an alarming sound indicating their human is in some kind of jeopardy or pain. Their cautious reaction shows an attempt to make sense of the situation and provide comfort if needed.

Cats Dislike the Sound and Timbre of Human Crying

The high-pitched irregular sound of crying may bother cats. The wailing timbre and volume can scare cats. They may flee or hide from crying.

According to one source, “The high-pitched, irregular vocalizations associated with human crying can sound distressing and unfamiliar to cats.” (1) Another notes that “cats have sensitive ears and loud, high-pitched sounds like crying can hurt their ears.” (2)

The unfamiliar and loud sounds may trigger a fear response, causing the cat to retreat to a quiet, secure spot until the crying subsides. While cats have an instinct to care for and comfort crying kittens, the strange timbre of human cries does not elicit the same reaction. Rather than comfort, a human’s wailing sobs may simply upset or frighten some cats.

Kittens Use Crying to Elicit Care from Mother Cats

A kitten’s crying serves an important purpose – to get the care and attention of its mother. Kittens are born blind, deaf, and helpless, relying completely on their mother for food, warmth, cleaning, and protection. To elicit this nurturing care from the mother cat, newborn kittens will mew, squeak, and cry incessantly.

According to PetMD, kittens cry and meow loudly when they are hungry, cold, need help going to the bathroom, or are frightened. The mother cat responds to these distress calls by nursing, grooming, warming, and comforting the kitten.

Adult cats relate a human’s crying to the sound of kitten cries asking for help and care. A human’s tears and sobs may trigger the adult cat’s natural caregiving instincts, eliciting comfort, purring, and physical affection from the cat.

Cats May Try to Cheer Up Crying Humans

Cats often exhibit comforting behaviors when they see their human crying or upset. According to this article, cats have an instinct to provide solace and affection to their owners in times of distress.

When a human cries, the cat may respond by meowing, purring loudly, rubbing against the person, or bringing a favorite toy over. Cats do this to try to cheer up the human and make them feel better. The sounds and physical touch are meant to be reassuring.

Cats tend to dislike seeing their human family members in states of sadness or distress. The crying triggers their natural caregiving instincts. So they will often try to actively comfort and distract the person who is upset. It shows how bonded cats become with their owners.

While cats may not fully understand complex human emotions like sadness, they can still recognize signs of distress. The cat’s attempts to cheer up a crying human demonstrate their capacity for empathy and attachment.

Boredom or Medical Issues Can Cause Cats to Cry

Cats often meow or cry when they are bored, hungry, or in pain. As natural hunters, cats can become frustrated or distressed when left alone for long periods without stimulation. Their cries are designed to get attention and elicit caregiving from humans. According to veterinarians, excessive or unusual crying in cats should not be ignored, as it can signal an underlying medical problem.

Common health issues that cause cats to cry include hyperthyroidism, dental disease, arthritis, and gastrointestinal problems. Cats may cry persistently because they are hungry or thirsty if they have conditions affecting their appetite or ability to eat. Any major change in crying habits in cats should prompt a veterinary visit to rule out illness or injury.

While boredom and medical issues account for most cat crying, sometimes the cause is not identifiable. Cats may cry at nighttime without any obvious reason. Stress can also lead to excessive crying. Understanding the context around the crying and providing cats with proper care and enrichment is key to curbing unnecessary vocalizations.

Cat Crying Triggers a Caregiving Response in Humans

Humans are sensitive to cat cries and meows. We instinctively want to help a crying cat. Cats learn that crying gets human attention. According to Dr. Leslie Lyons, an expert in cat genetics and behavior at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, persistent crying in cats is “absolutely a sign that something isn’t quite right.”

As social creatures, humans are attuned to interpret crying and meowing as a distress signal. When we hear a cat making loud, plaintive meows, it triggers our innate caregiving response. We immediately want to soothe the cat and figure out what is wrong, similar to how a mother responds when her human baby cries. Cats learn to use their cries to solicit food, attention, and care from their doting human companions.

So a cat may discover that meowing persistently leads to being picked up, petted, given treats, or even rushed to the veterinarian. Humans reinforce this connection by giving the cat what it wants when it cries. Over time, the cat associates loud meowing with getting its needs met. Some cats become so conditioned to cry for attention that it can turn into excessive, attention-seeking meowing at the slightest provocation.

Cats May Try to Mimic Crying Humans

Some cats learn to mimic human vocal sounds. They may attempt to imitate crying to get a response from humans. According to research, cats are able to imitate nuances in their owners’ voices, including melody patterns, in order to communicate better. This shows cats have some capacity to mimic human sounds like crying, even if they don’t fully understand the meaning behind them.

While cats don’t have the physiology to mimic speech exactly, some cats can produce sounds that resemble human crying. This may be an attempt to get attention from their human caretakers. Since humans instinctively respond to crying with care and concern, mimicking this sound may help cats elicit the response they want, like food or affection.

However, not all cats have the ability or desire to copy human vocalizations like crying. It depends on the individual cat, its personality, and how much it interacts with humans on a daily basis. But for cats inclined to be vocal, mimicking crying can be a useful communication tool to get their needs across to their human companions.

With Comfort and Reassurance, Cats Can Learn to Tolerate Crying

Cats can become accustomed to human emotional sounds over time. With positive conditioning, they learn crying is not dangerous. While the sound of crying may initially startle some cats, they can be reassured through calm interactions. With time, even loud sobbing or wailing can become a familiar occurrence that does not upset them.

It helps to provide cats with plenty of affection and play when humans are calm and happy. This positive association can make them more confident to remain nearby during emotional outbursts. Additionally, rewarding cats with treats for staying close while crying occurs can encourage tolerance. Providing favorite toys or activities for distraction and comfort helps as well.

Cats that flee or hide from crying may need gradual exposure from a distance at first. Allowing them to observe from across the room can help overcome an initial fear response. As cats become desensitized to crying sounds, they can be brought closer over multiple sessions. With patience and care, the unique bond between cats and their humans persists even during intensely emotional times.

According to one source, “To help address your cat’s crying, you could try providing her with some additional comfort and reassurance. This could include spending more dedicated play and snuggle time together when you are home and relaxed to strengthen your bond.” (source)

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