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New research sheds light on why cats and dogs lift their owners' moods

What it is about human interactions with dogs and cats that lead to health and happiness benefits?

Having a pet in the home — particularly a dog or a cat — has been repeatedly found to have a positive effect on people’s overall stress levels and mood.

As one researcher put it, pets are not “a panacea for emotional wellbeing,” yet “one's health and happiness improves in a meaningful fashion from pet ownership.” But what it is about human interactions with dogs and cats that lead to health and happiness benefits? 

Two recently published studies offer some interesting insights. One found that dogs change their facial expressions in response to human attention. The other found that cats seek out contact with their owners after a long separation.

Such behaviors by our pets may increase our attachment to them — and, thus, our sense of emotional well-being.

Dogs and facial expressions

It’s long been known that dogs have a variety of facial expressions — and that humans change their behavior in response to them. (Dogs in animal shelters who raise their brow — creating sad-looking “puppy-dog eyes” — are more likely to get adopted, for example.)

But what hasn’t been known is if dogs produce their facial expressions intentionally, when humans are around.

To find out, researchers at the University of Portsmouth in England brought to their lab 24 pet dogs of various breeds (including 10 mutts). All were family pets, and ranged in age from one to 12 years.

Each dog was tied by a lead in a quiet room. One of the study’s researchers stood about three feet away. The researcher took four different positions during the experiment: facing the dog and displaying a handful of food, facing the dog and not displaying food, facing away from the dog and displaying food, and facing away and not displaying food. The researcher gazed not at the dog, but at a spot on the wall, and also made sure to not respond to the dog’s behaviors.

The dog’s facial expressions were videotaped during the experiment and then analyzed by DogFACS, a facial action coding system that the University of Portsmouth researchers have developed for dogs.

The analysis found that the dogs produced twice as many facial expressions when the researcher was facing them than when facing away from them. The most common expression was brow-raising — the so-called puppy dog eyes. 

Interestingly, the dogs did not respond with more facial expressions when they could see the food — a finding that suggests, say the researchers, that dogs produce facial expressions to communicate and not just because they are excited (in this case, about getting something to eat).

“The findings appear to support evidence dogs are sensitive to humans’ attention and that expressions are potentially active attempts to communicate, not simple emotional displays,” said Juliane Kaminski, a dog cognition expert and the study’s lead author, in a released statement.

Cats after a separation

For the cat study, researchers at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences left 14 privately owned cats alone in their home environments twice: for 30 minutes and for four hours.

The cats were videotaped each time. No differences were observed in the cats’ behavior, indicating that the cats were unaffected by the length of time they were separated from their owners.

When the owners returned, however, the cats spent more time purring and stretching their bodies after the longer separation than after the shorter one.

Those behaviors had nothing to do with wanting to be fed, the researchers point out, for the animals had been given access to food throughout the separations.

The study also found that the owners talked more to their cats after the longer separation. Interestingly, however, the researchers found no evidence of a correlation between the verbal contact and the level of purring or body stretching by the cats. That finding implies, say the researchers, that the cats’ behavioral expressions were independent of their owners’ behaviors.

“It seems [that] cats coped well with being left alone, but they were affected by the time they were left alone, since they expressed differences in behavior when the owner returned home,” the researchers conclude. “The increased level of social contact initiated by the cats after a longer duration of separation indicates a rebound of contact-seeking behavior, implying that the owner is an important part of the cat’s social environment.”

And it’s that sense of social support that provides an emotional boost to cat and dog owners alike.

FMI: The cat study was published Oct. 18 in PLOS One, where it can be read in full. The dog study was published Oct. 19 in Scientific Reports, where it, too, can be read in full.

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