Social referencing and cat–human communication
Cats’ (Felis catus) communicative behaviour towards humans was explored using a social referencing paradigm in the presence of a potentially frightening object. One group of cats observed their owner delivering a positive emotional message, whereas another group received a negative emotional message. The aim was to evaluate whether cats use the emotional information provided by their owners about a novel/unfamiliar object to guide their own behaviour towards it. We assessed the presence of social referencing, in terms of referential looking towards the owner (defined as looking to the owner immediately before or after looking at the object), the behavioural regulation based on the owner’s emotional (positive vs negative) message (vocal and facial), and the observational conditioning following the owner’s actions towards the object. Most cats (79 %) exhibited referential looking between the owner and the object, and also to some extent changed their behaviour in line with the emotional message given by the owner. Results are discussed in relation to social referencing in other species (dogs in particular) and cats’ social organization and domestication history.