To Pet Owners, a Dog's Whimpering Sounds Just as Sad as an Infant's Cry

By Ed Cara on at

Devoted pet owners are often said to treat their furry friends like children. A new study out Thursday seems to show that’s not too far from the truth. The study found, among other things, that pet owners rated the sounds of a dog whimpering to be sad as cries coming from a human baby.

Researchers recruited more than 500 college undergraduate volunteers for their study, published in Royal Society Open Science. These volunteers were split about evenly between people who owned either cats or dogs and non-pet owners. They listened to a variety of “animal distress vocalisations” taken from dogs, cats, and humans, as well as rated how happy or sad they sounded. They were also asked about their general social functioning and close relationships with other people.

As you might expect, pet owners rated the cries coming from dogs and cats as overall sadder than those who didn’t own pets. Cat owners, naturally, were the most sensitive to cat cries (described as “miaows” by the researchers). But both cat and dog owners overall felt that the cries from a precious pup were just as sad as those from a human infant. And even cat owners rated these dog yelps as sadder on average than those coming from a cat.

Cats are notoriously considered more aloof and less reliant on their owners for survival, the authors noted. And that might also explain why a dog’s whimper pulls at our heartstrings more effectively. Put simply, we know that dogs (and human babies for that matter) are helpless without us, so any indication of them being in trouble is more likely to set off a reaction than hearing a cat meow.

“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,” Christine Parsons, a researcher at the Aarhus University in Denmark, said in a release from the university. “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.”

The team did look into alternative explanations for their findings, such as pet owners being different in other important ways from non-owners. Maybe dog owners are more emotionally responsive in general, or maybe cat owners are more likely to deal with depression and anxiety.

But, contrary to some other studies, they didn’t find any significant differences between the groups when it came to their personalities, either in their rates of self-reported depression or anxiety symptoms, or in how they described their relationships with other people.

“In general, we think of dog owners in more positive terms than cat owners. In our study, we were able to test how cat-owners, dog owners and people with no pets responded on a series of robust psychological measures. We found no differences,” Parsons said.

Though the sample size is relatively big for a study of this kind, it’s worth pointing out that college students aren’t necessarily representative of the general population. Other research, meanwhile, continues to show that dog ownership is linked to getting more exercise and other health benefits (despite this reporter’s clear pug bias, said reporter actually owns a cat).

Regardless of how you feel about either cats or dogs, though, who doesn’t appreciate an awful pet-related pun? To that end, Parsons and her team titled their study: “Pawsitively sad: pet-owners are more sensitive to negative emotion in animal distress vocalisations.”

Featured image: Mary Altaffer (AP)