Can Cats Smell Stress? · The Wildest

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Your Cat Can Tell When You’re Stressed, Study Says

It’s all in their noses.

by Charles Manning
Updated January 5, 2024
a tattooed person with curly red hair on a couch pets a brown and black cat
Tessy Morelli / Stocksy

A recent study found that dogs are actually able to tell if a human is stressed or calm based on their scent alone. What they choose to do with that information — run and hide, snuggle close, or attempt to initiate play — depends on their training and their relationship with said human. More research needs to be done to determine if they can actually differentiate between different types of stress (i.e., anger, fear, and depression). Still, it’s nice to think that your dog can actually smell how you are feeling and react accordingly, right?

But...what about cats? Do they have what it takes to sniff out and, should they choose to do so, alleviate stress in humans? Dogs have millions more scent receptors than cats, but cats have more than three times as many V1R receptors — those that can actually differentiate between scents — so, in a way, a cat’s nose is  even more sensitive than a dog’s. But just because a cat is capable of differentiating between scents, doesn’t mean they use this skill to clock human emotions, especially when there are other, more direct means of doing so.

2015 study found that cats use visual and auditory cues to help determine their human’s emotional state. In the study, cats and their humans entered a room containing a fan with streamers tied to it. The idea was to bring an element of uncertainty and potential anxiety into the room, without putting the cats or people at risk.

Half of the humans were told to speak to their cats in a happy voice while looking back and forth between the cat and the fans. The other half were instructed to speak to their cats in a fearful way. In both cases, 80 percent of cats looked to their owners first before trying to determine how to act towards the fan, and many of the cats actually seemed to base their own behavior on the reactions of their people.

Whether a cat uses scent to help determine a person’s emotional state or not, what they choose to do with that information depends on the cat themself. Some cats are simply less demonstrably affectionate than others, so even if they know you are stressed or upset, they may not take direct action to alleviate your symptoms — at least not in ways you necessarily recognize.

While a more gregarious cat might rub up against you or lovingly knead you with their paws, a more independent cat might just sit in the room and throw you the occasional slow blink. Both cats, however, are demonstrating their concern for/connection to you — just in different ways.

As far as your cat is concerned, you are a member of their “colony,” and it is to their advantage to create and maintain a connection with you and keep an eye on how you are feeling. Your stress can cause them stress because it could result in changes to their routine or a reduction in the amount or quality of the care you give them.

For that reason alone, it is to their advantage to do something to at least try and make you feel better. That might sound manipulative and self-serving, but care and need are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are intimately linked, in cats and humans alike. And if your cat doesn’t have what it takes to free you from your stress, well, there’s always therapy.

Charles Manning

Charles Manning is an actor, writer, and fashion/media consultant living in New York City with his two cats, Pumpkin and Bear. Follow him on Instagram @charlesemanning.

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