A new study has, for the first time, investigated whether cats look to their owners for guidance on how to behave in certain situations.

The research explored cats’ communicative behaviour towards humans using a social referencing paradigm in the presence of a potentially frightening object – an electric fan with some plastic ribbons attached to it.

Social referencing is a process characterised by the use of another person’s perceptions and interpretation of a situation to form one’s own understanding and guide action. This process is widely observed in infants toward their mother, and in dogs toward their owners, but has never been investigated between cats and humans.

Lead researcher Isabella Merola, from the School of Life Sciences, University of Lincoln, UK, explained: “One group of cats observed their owner delivering a positive emotional message towards the fan, whereas another group received a negative emotional message. The aim was to observe whether cats use the emotional information provided about a novel/unfamiliar object to guide their own behaviour towards it.”

Most cats (79 per cent), similarly to infants and dogs, exhibited referential looking – defined as looking to the owner immediately before or after looking at the object. They also, to some extent, changed their behaviour in line with the emotional message given by the owner.

This study is the first that has looked at the social referencing process between cats and their owners, and evidenced cats can use the owner reaction to guide their action.

However, the capacity of cats to synchronise their behaviour to their human partner in this study has appeared to beless evident than in infants and dogs previously studied, so further investigations are needed to better explore this process.

The research ‘Social referencing and cat–human communication’ is published in journal Animal Cognition.