Animal Cognition

, Volume 18, Issue 3, pp 639–648 | Cite as

Social referencing and cat–human communication

  • I. MerolaEmail author
  • M. Lazzaroni
  • S. Marshall-Pescini
  • E. Prato-Previde
Original Paper


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.


Social referencing Cats Gaze alternation Social learning Human–cat communication 



This research was supported by a PhD and postdoctoral grant from Milan University to Isabella Merola and Sarah Marshall-Pescini. A special thanks to Emanuela Ponzone for her invaluable help in data collection and scoring, and Paola Valsecchi for insightful comments on the manuscript. Finally, we would like to thank all the owners and cats that participated as volunteers. This research complies with the current Italian laws on animal welfare.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • I. Merola
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • M. Lazzaroni
    • 1
  • S. Marshall-Pescini
    • 1
    • 3
  • E. Prato-Previde
    • 1
  1. 1.Dipartimento di Fisiopatologia Medico-Chirurgica e dei Trapianti, Sezione di NeuroscienzeUniversità degli Studi di MilanoSegrateItaly
  2. 2.School of Life Sciences, Joseph Bank LaboratoriesUniversity of LincolnLincolnUK
  3. 3.Comparative Cognition, Messerli Research Institute, University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, Medical University of ViennaUniversity of ViennaViennaAustria

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