In the study, conducted by researchers at Denmark’s Aarhus University, 264 young adults who own cats and/or dogs and 297 non-pet owners rated the effects animal distress vocalizations had on them. They also reported their feelings of anxiety and depression. The results reveal that pet owners rated the animal distress sounds as sadder than non-pet owners did.
Dog distress noises were rated more negatively than other vocalizations in general, while cat owners more negatively rated cat whines than the other participants in the study.
“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,” researcher Christine Parsons said in a Thursday press release.
The researchers also speculated that dogs may have more “effective distress signals” than cats because dogs are much more dependent on humans than cats. In fact, pet-owning participants rated whimpering dog sounds just as negatively as the sound of a baby crying.
“Pet ownership is associated with greater sensitivity to pet distress sounds, and it may be part of the reason why we are willing to spend large amounts of time and resources on our domestic companions. It might also explain why we find interacting with pets so rewarding, and are emotionally impacted by both positive communication signals, like purring, and negative, like meows or whines,” Parsons added.
Adults who own pets did not report different symptoms regarding depression and anxiety than non-pet owning adults.
“For symptoms of anxiety, depression and self-reported experiences in close relationships, we found no differences between adults with and without pets. We’re suggesting that cat or dog ownership is not necessarily associated with individual differences in psychological health, at least as tested here,” Parsons concluded.