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Dogs are better than cats at expressing emotions - except for anger

In the age-old debate of cats versus dogs, it seems there may be some scientific basis to the idea that dogs have better communication skills. 

New research reveals that, according to pet owners, dogs display a broader range of emotions than cats.

Focus of the study

The study was focused on a comprehensive survey of 438 pet owners. 

The participants were asked to discern whether their pets showcased any of 22 listed emotions, ranging from obvious feelings such as joy and sadness to more nuanced emotions like frustration and disappointment. 

What the researchers learned 

The results showed that, on average, dog owners believed they identified emotions in their pets 65 percent of the time, while cat owners trailed slightly behind at 58 percent.

Dogs, it appears, have a unique propensity for revealing subtle emotions, particularly feelings of empathy and guilt. 

But while cats may be labeled as the more enigmatic creatures, they hold a special prowess in manifesting one distinct emotion: anger. 

A whopping 85 percent of cat owners had witnessed their cats display anger, while only 60 percent of dog owners had observed anger in their pets.

What makes the difference?

But what accounts for this perceived emotional disparity between cats and dogs? The study authors provide an intriguing hypothesis. 

Historically, dogs have been closely aligned with human activities, from hunting to herding. Their consistent interactions with humans may have sharpened their emotional expressiveness. 

Subtle signs from cats

On the flip side, the nature of “semi-solitary” cats might have allowed them to maintain a semblance of emotional inscrutability. Furthermore, the lesser frequency at which cats maintain eye contact or gaze at their owners may add to the perception of them being harder to decipher.

Professor Daniel Mills from the University of Lincoln, a co-author of the study, weighed in on this fascinating dynamic. “When cats turn on their owners and scratch them, it can be because owners miss subtle signs suggesting it is time to stop touching or petting them.”

“So it’s important to understand our pets, but these results suggest we may not be as in tune with cats as we are with dogs. This could be because dogs may have been bred to have more expressive faces than cats.”

“But unfortunately we still don’t know whether cats and dogs genuinely show different emotions, or whether people project more emotions onto dogs than cats, because we often work more closely with dogs so need better communication.”

Discernible emotions 

The research, now published in the journal Animals, was meticulous in its approach. The participants had lived with their pets for a minimum of two years. 

Apart from the six primary emotions of anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise, participants were also quizzed on 16 lesser discernible emotions. 

The survey data indicated that feelings like anxiety, boredom, confusion, and even positive anticipation were more frequently recognized in dogs.

However, there are some inherent biases that might be present. For instance, among the 68 study participants who owned both cats and dogs, not a single one believed their cat had ever displayed guilt, even though about a third recognized this emotion in their dogs.

Perceiving love and affection

Previous research has shown that cat owners are lrss likely to see their pet as a member of the family compared to dog owners, which would indicate that cat-owner pairs have less of a bond.

However, a surprising revelation from the study was that even when cat owners held their pets in slightly less familial regard than dog owners, there was no significant difference between both sets of owners in terms of perceiving love and affection from their pets.

More about interpreting pet emotions

Reading pet emotions is a fascinating intersection of animal behavior, psychology, and the human-animal bond.

With domestic animals like dogs and cats playing such integral roles in many households, understanding their emotions has become more than just a curiosity – it’s a pathway to forging deeper and more compassionate connections.


Dogs have long been known for their capacity to communicate with humans through various channels, including body language, vocalizations, and facial expressions. A wagging tail, whimpering, or the soulful gaze of “puppy eyes” can all convey emotions ranging from happiness and anticipation to sadness and anxiety.

Some studies even suggest that dogs may have developed facial muscles specifically to communicate with humans. Researchers have discovered that dogs can understand and respond to human emotions, showing empathy and even adjusting their behavior based on the emotional state of their owners.

Specific behaviors 

Tail wagging

A wagging tail often signals happiness, but the direction and type of wag can be significant. For instance, a wag to the right might indicate positive feelings, while a wag to the left might signal negative ones.


Growling usually signifies discomfort or threat, while whining can indicate anxiety or a desire for attention.

Ears and eyes

Forward-pointing ears show interest, while flattened ears can mean fear. Dilated pupils might indicate arousal or stress.


Cats are often seen as more mysterious and challenging to read. Their expressions of emotion can be subtle and may require more attentive observation. While dogs have been bred for generations to work closely with humans, cats have remained relatively more solitary, leading to different communication patterns.

For example, a cat’s purring may signal contentment, but it could also be a sign of discomfort or pain. A slow blink from a cat often conveys trust and affection. 

The range of emotions that cats exhibit may not be as immediately accessible or recognizable to many owners. Understanding a cat’s emotions may require careful observation of their behavior, body posture, and vocalizations.

Specific behaviors 


While generally linked to contentment, cats might also purr when in pain or distress.


This is a comfort behavior originating from kittenhood when they knead their mother’s belly for milk.

Tail movements

A lashing tail can indicate irritation, while a raised tail often means a cat is content and confident.


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