Parsons, C. E., LeBeau, R. T., Kringelbach, M. L. et al. 2019. Pawsitively sad: Pet-owners are more sensitive to negative emotion in animal distress vocalizations. Royal Society Open Science 6(8), 181555.
Pets have numerous, effective methods to communicate with their human hosts. Perhaps most conspicuous of these are distress vocalizations: in cats, the ‘miaow’ and in dogs, the ‘whine’ or ‘whimper’. We compared a sample of young adults who owned cats and or dogs (‘pet-owners’ n = 264) and who did not (n = 297) on their ratings of the valence of animal distress vocalizations, taken from a standardized database of sounds. We also examined these participants' self-reported symptoms of anxiety and depression, and their scores on a measure of interpersonal relationship functioning. Pet-owners rated the animal distress vocalizations as sadder than adults who did not own a pet. Cat-owners specifically gave the most negative ratings of cat miaows compared with other participants, but were no different in their ratings of other sounds. Dog sounds were rated more negatively overall, in fact as negatively as human baby cries. Pet-owning adults (cat only, dog only, both) were not significantly different from adults with no pets on symptoms of depression, anxiety or on self-reported interpersonal relationship functioning. We suggest that pet ownership is associated with greater sensitivity to negative emotion in cat and dog distress vocalizations.