Any pet owner would pay a small fortune for just one real conversation with their beloved animal.
We could ask burning questions like, “Why do you hate the UPS guy?” and “Why did you attack that mouse if you weren’t even hungry?”
Alas, we’re not there yet; but, we’re getting closer. Researchers in Hungary used neuroimaging to study the brains of dogs as they reacted to various sounds. The canine test subjects entered an MRI machine and listened to human voices, other dogs barking, and various non-animal sounds.
The scientists found that the dogs had an area in their brain that displayed a great deal of activity when they heard a dog bark or a human talk. This area showed the most activity when the dogs heard a happy dog barking or a human voice with a positive tone. The area showed minimal activity when the dogs heard breaking glass or other random noises.
Attila Andics, the lead author of the study told Smithsonian, “It appears that there is a similar mechanism that processes social information in both dogs and humans. We think this might be able to explain what makes vocal communication between the two species so effortless and successful.”
The study confirmed what many pet owners already know: Dogs understand the moods of the people (and other dogs) in their lives.
“We know that dogs don’t have language, per se, but we see now that dogs have very similar mechanisms to process social information as humans,” Andics said. “It makes us wonder what aspects of so-called ‘language skills’ are not so human-specific after all, but are also there
As always, cats remain slightly more mysterious.
Researchers have not performed these experiments on cats (we’re guessing they’re a little harder to coax into an MRI), but there’s reason to believe they have the same capacity to understand moods. To understand
Humans, dogs, and cats all share a common ancestor. Just to be clear, that means that if you go back enough generations, you, Fido, and Fritz are literally the great-great-great (and so on) grandchildren of a protomammal that looks like a shrew.
Because both humans and dogs have an area in their brain through which they understand emotion, it is likely that this protomammal did too. Otherwise, humans and dogs would have had to evolve the trait individually through convergent evolution.
This isn’t impossible, but it’s more likely that the majority of mammals have this adaptation. And that includes cats. That humans domesticated cats recently (about 9,500 years ago) compared to dogs (as far back as 36,000 years) could explain why dogs are more attuned to human emotion than cats.
At the very least, we know that cats like people.
Cats have a reputation for being unsocial, but that may be overblown. A University of Oregon study of shelter and pet cats proved that domestic cats will choose human interaction over food or toys. The researchers gave each cat the choice to sniff a scent, play with a toy, play with a human, or eat food.
While a few renegades chose the food, a clear majority of both pet and shelter cats picked human interaction over the other three options. The authors of the study theorized that people think cats are unsocial simply because we don’t understand their behavior well enough.
There’s obviously more work to do before we fully understand our pets, and we may never learn why Biscuits tore the bathroom trash into thousands of pieces. But, it’s exciting to live in a time when we’re learning so much about how our pets think.