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The Effects of Dog and Cat Distress Signals on Their Humans

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog distress

Story at-a-glance -

  • When it comes to distress signals, such as whining, whimpering or cat meows, pet owners are uniquely tuned in to their pets’ vocalizations
  • In a study of young adults who owned cats and/or dogs and those who did not, researchers played recordings of animal distress vocalizations from dogs, cats and humans, and asked the participants to rate how happy or sad they sounded
  • Both dog and cat owners rated dog whines more negatively, or sadder overall, than non-pet owners
  • For cat meows, those sounded sadder to cat owners than they did to dog owners or non-pet owners
  • Dog whines and whimpers were rated more negatively overall than cat sounds, and dog cries were rated as negatively as human baby cries

It’s no secret that many pet owners view their pets as family members, and a survey of adults ages 20 to 36 even found that 44% of people in that age group view their pets as “starter children.”1 Other pet owners have admitted to preferring their pets to their human children, and many treat them similarly, for instance throwing birthday parties for their pets, buying them clothes and letting them share their bed.2

When it comes to distress signals, such as whining, whimpering or cat meows, pet owners are also uniquely tuned in to their pets’ vocalizations, rating them similarly to cries from a human child in terms of the negative emotions they stir up.

Pet Owners More Sensitive to Animal Distress Sounds

In a study of young adults who owned cats and/or dogs and those who did not, researchers played recordings of animal distress vocalizations from dogs, cats and humans, and asked the participants to rate how happy or sad they sounded.3

Both dog and cat owners rated dog whines more negatively, or sadder overall, than non-pet owners. Cat meows sounded sadder to cat owners than they did to dog owners or non-pet owners. Study author Christine Parsons of the Interacting Minds Centre at the Department of Clinical medicine at Aarhus University, Denmark, explained:4

"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."

Further, dog whines and whimpers were rated more negatively overall than cat sounds. The dog cries, in fact, were rated as negatively as human baby cries. As for why dog whines were viewed as sadder than cat meows, the researchers attributed it to the fact that dogs may need more dedicated care, such as daily walks, while cats may be more independent.

While dogs are entirely dependent on their owners, cats have maintained a reputation for being only semi-domesticated. Study author Katherine Young said in a news release, "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."5

This may also explain why the study participants were more likely to rate dog whines on a similar emotional scale as human baby cries. The researchers wrote:6

“Dogs are generally more dependent on their owners for care than cats, and therefore require an especially effective set of communicative signals. Furthermore, dog-owners have a greater tendency to anthropomorphize (ascribe human-like emotions) than cat-owners. If this tendency extends to non-dog-owners, it might explain why the dog whines were a particularly plaintive sound for humans, as negative as a baby's cry for the tested participants.”

Humans Understand Dog Barks and Dogs React to Human Cries

The synergy between pets and people extends to understanding others’ emotions, even across species. When a human hears an infant crying, levels of the stress hormone cortisol increase and alertness is heightened. This is an example of emotional contagion, which is a primitive form of empathy.

Dogs, too, display this emotional contagion, as cortisol levels increase in dogs after listening to a human infant crying. Behaviorally, dogs may respond to a crying baby by displaying both submissiveness and alertness, suggesting the existence of cross-species empathy.7 Similarly, humans are capable of understanding dog barks. In a study involving a Hungarian dog breed called a Mudi,8 researchers recorded the dogs barking in six distinct situations, including:9

A stranger at the door

A “bad guy” triggering aggression

An owner picking up the dog’s leash for a walk

The dog left alone while tied to a tree

Playing tug-of-war with his owner

The owner holding a toy near the dog

The recordings were then played for 36 people, who were able to categorize the barks according to the dogs’ likely emotions at the time (playful, fearful or aggressive). Dogs, too, are able to understand barks emitted in different contexts (a stranger at the fence versus a dog left alone) and can also tell the difference between different dogs barking.10

Dogs Are Adept at Communicating With Their Owners

The fact that pet owners rate a dog’s cry similarly to a human baby’s shows how adept dogs have become at communicating with their owners, evoking emotional responses similar to what a human baby might.

Most owners of multiple dogs can easily distinguish the bark of one dog from another as well as identify the purpose of the bark. If you’re not sure what your dog’s vocalizations mean, be it huffs, growls, whines, whimpers, barks or howls, look at the context. Is your dog barking out of boredom? Growling at an intruder? Huffing to get your attention?

Generally speaking, dogs use longer, lower frequency barks in response to a stranger approaching and higher pitched barks when they’re isolated.11 Beyond barking, your dog may also use the following acoustic forms of communication:12

  • Whines, which may reveal stress or attention-seeking
  • Growls, used as a warning or threat and sometimes during play
  • Howls, which are used for group cohesion
  • Groans and yelps, which indicate distress or pain
  • Grunts, which are related to pleasure

The more you pay attention to your dog’s communicative signals, and respond accordingly, the greater your bond will become. But, if you’re one of those who reacts to your dog’s whine the way you would to a baby crying, you probably knew that already.