Science Has Figured Out Dog Emotions, But Cat? No Way


Editor’s Note: Rebecca Jane Stokes is a writer for Catster’s sister SAY Media site, This article first ran on, but we’re rerunning it (with permission!) so you readers can comment on it. Please note that the opinions expressed below are just the author’s and not necessarily Catster’s.

If I weren’t a writer, I like to think that I’d have been born one of these researchers in Japan who study the best ways to determine whether your dog is happy.

I spent more time than is normal watching this video of a poodle with little sensors stuck to its white, poofy head react as it was presented with a stranger, versus its owner. Obviously, a dog wagging its tail is pleased to see you, or maybe is happily thinking about the rotten six-inch sub remnants it found in the backseat of your car and ate that one time.

The scientists (parallel universe Beccas, all of them) discovered that it ain’t just the tail that’s the tell — it’s the eyebrows. A dog being presented with a well-meaning stranger will move its ears around a lot, probably because they are confused as to why they are alone in a room with a strange man while strapped to a machine.

And rightly so.

Conversely, when presented with its owner, the dogs’ eyebrows leapt off their faces, just like Andy Rooney talking about artificial preservatives in things proclaiming themselves to be all-natural. They were happy to see their owners, is what researchers deduced.

The takeaway from this research (which probably cost more dollars than I have ever spent on a piece of furniture or airfare)? To tell what a dog is thinking — look at his face. This seems pretty obvious, but then, dogs are obvious creatures, whose very natures recommend them to being examined using the scientific method.

Hypothesis — dogs express their happiness in their faces. Conclusion — yeah, I was right about that. High fives for everyone.

While I do not own a dog, I live with three cats (only two are mine, technically, but you’d never know it with they way all want to be up in my crotch when I try to sleep at night. It’s like, damn, felines — you nasty). While I love them madly (ask me about the slideshow presentation and funeral I have planned for when my Rumi passes), I appreciate the simple cause and effect nature in dogs.

Show a dog a biscuit, it drools and sits down. Or if the dog is bad, the dog tackles you and eats the biscuit. Pat a dog’s head, you get a tail wag. Cook bacon, the dog saunters into the room and looks at you with an I’m-trying-so-hard-to-keep-it-cool look that is classic and amazing.

Science does not lend itself to cats. If you tried to run this study on cats, you would first have to devise a way to get a cat to sit still while you adhered sensors to it. This would be an ultimately ineffectual task. That said, you’d come away with some interesting scars to show your grandkids.

You don’t need to run a scientific experiment to figure out that you can’t tell a lot about what a cat’s thinking by the cat’s face. Cats are notoriously inscrutable. This is why talking cats in commercials are comic gold. This is also why the ancient Egyptians assumed cats were divine.

I know the feeling. There are mornings when I spot my cat, his face quietly pressed up against the wall for no apparent reason, and I can feel the temptation to assume that it’s because he has left his corporeal body and gone to commune with the spirit realm. Ultimately, I have decided, however, that this not that case, and that my cat, is, in fact, an idiot. I don’t mean that in a dickish way. I still love him a lot. But he once got his head stuck in a paper bag trying to eat an empty burrito wrapper. We are not dealing with Thor, god of thunder, here.

What it comes down to, really, is ownership. The working theory of those scientists in Japan is that the reason even people who haven’t spent a lot of time with dogs can point out when a dog is happy, sad, or angry, is because they have developed a natural empathy from having owned domesticated dogs for such a long, long time.

It’s natural to look at a dog and assign it human emotion. This is true of cats too, only, cats don’t care who owns them provided that someone is there to open their cans. This makes us, their owners, perhaps, less confident in asserting that our cat is happy to see us. We are far more likely to think they are furtively planning world domination and we have interrupted them.

All that said, I still absolutely know what my cats are thinking and feeling at all times. Do you? Have you ever misread an animal? Do you think it’s bogus to apply human emotional vocabulary to creatures that are not human? DISCUSS.

Cats are unpredictable. They make us unpredictable. Here’s proof:

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