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Can a Cat Sense Fear? Vet Reviewed Answer

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	Dr. Lauren Demos (DVM) Photo

Reviewed & Fact-Checked By

Dr. Lauren Demos (DVM)


The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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We all know that cats do an excellent job of comforting us when we’ve had a rough day. All we need is to sink our fingers into their soft fur and feel their purr rumbling under our hands to feel better. But have you ever wondered if your cat can sense your emotions? More specifically, can they, like dogs, sense fear?

Cats can absolutely sense fear, in addition to other emotions. Here, we take a deep dive into a cat’s senses and how exactly they can sense fear.

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Can a Cat Sense Fear?

Cats have highly tuned senses that are critical for their survival. They are both predator and prey, so they need to be sensitive to their surroundings to hunt and avoid any animals that are hunting them. This means they live in a state of mild anxiety most of the time, which puts them on high alert.

When we are fearful, there are several visual and auditory cues that another person won’t likely notice, but a cat will.

The most common yet subtle signs and symptoms of fear1 that we exhibit are:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Hyperventilating
  • Increased heart rate
  • Sweating and chills
  • Butterflies in the stomach
  • Trembling
angry cat hissing
Image Credit: Fang_Y_M, Pixabay

Cats have highly developed senses and can pick up on a few of these signs that we’re afraid.

Our cats will seek emotional cues from us when they are uncertain about a situation. If you are scared, anxious, or tense, they will see this expressed in your body language, facial expressions, and voice. Your cat is looking to you as their guardian to know how to best react to the situation.

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How Do Cats Sense Emotions?

It’s been researched, studied, discussed, and verified that dogs can be quite sensitive to our emotions. But while there have been numerous studies on dogs, there are few studies on cats and human emotions.

One study2  found that cats do recognize our emotions and tend to change their behavior depending on their understanding of the emotion that we’re experiencing.

Cats aren’t quite as gifted as dogs in this department, but they do respond, just in their own way. Their cat’s finely tuned senses are what help them determine what mood we’re in.

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A Cat’s Senses

Like us, cats have five senses3 — hearing, touch, taste, sight, and smell — and theirs are exceptional!


A cat’s hearing is one of their strongest senses. Their ears can pick up sounds that are beyond our hearing, which includes high frequency (or ultrasonic). The fact that their ears can swivel up to 180 degrees enables them to pinpoint where sounds are coming from.

This extraordinary ability to hear things that many others can’t enables cats to pick up on our emotions. They can recognize our emotional state just based on the tone of our voice and if we are making “angry” or “sad” sounds.


tabby cat at night
Image Credit: Mookmixsth, Shutterstock

Cats have excellent vision, including night vision, to help them hunt. They can see quite well in dim light, and their eyesight also enables them to pick up on visual cues.

They can pick up from your facial expressions when you’re feeling a specific emotion, though this is learned rather than innate talent.

Cats will stay around their owners longer if they see that they are smiling, and they will tend to show positive behavior in response, like rubbing the person’s legs and purring.


Cats have excellent senses of smell, which helps them hunt and avoid trouble. When we sweat, particularly the cold sweat that is associated with fear, we also release adrenaline. This is also when the “fight or flight” reaction sets in.

When people are scared, they release a chemical pheromone in their sweat, but it’s unclear if cats can smell this pheromone or understand what it means.


close up of cat whiskers
Image Credit: Annette Meyer, Pixabay

Cats use their whiskers to figure out the space that they are in, and they are sensitive to the slightest touch. Their whiskers are connected to their nervous system and can almost be compared to our senses of smell and sight. Their whiskers are even capable of sensing vibrations in the air!

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How Will a Cat React If You’re Scared?

It depends on the relationship between you and the cat. It’s possible that your cat will also become frightened (even more so if you’re both reacting to the same thing). But if you’re afraid of the cat, they might try to establish their dominance.

One study found that cats could detect when their owners were stressed or anxious and would mirror their owner’s current emotional state.

None of this should be surprising. Cats are sensitive creatures, and if their owner is stressed, it stands to reason that the cat will feel the same way.

kitten training
Image Credit: Jaromir Chalabala, Shutterstock

Can Cats Sense Other Emotions?

It makes sense that if a cat can sense fear, they can also sense other emotions. They can read our facial cues and body language to figure it out.

If someone is feeling depressed and sad, a cat might be more likely to be quiet and low energy, but if the person is happy, they’ll be looking to play and for affection.

But cats are also aware of our eyes. They use information about your gaze, like where you’re looking, as a way to figure out your intentions and mood. One well-known method to tell your cat that you love them is with a slow blink.

Will Cats Protect Their Owners When Threatened?

This entirely depends on the cat and the relationship that they have with their owner. There are videos out there that show cats scaring burglars and even larger dogs away by going on the offensive.

But not all cats will do this. Some cats, when threatened, will run and hide, so it depends on the temperament and upbringing of the cat.

If the owner is scared, but there’s not an actual threat, some cats might still hide, while others might try to comfort them.

chimera kitten hug by owner
Image Credit: Natalia Kokhanova, Shutterstock

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Sometimes cats seem so intuitive, it’s like they have a sixth sense. Perhaps they do, but science tells us that it’s all about their highly tuned senses and sensitivity to everything around them. The longer you have your cat, the more attuned they will become to you and your moods.

Cats will also associate your actions with your emotions. For example, if you cuddle your cat every time you’re sad, they will start to expect a cuddle when they see that you’re feeling blue.

All that said, cats tend to be on the cusp of fear so much of the time that it isn’t too far off base that they can sense your fear too. Remember, if you are ever in need of comfort, try petting your cat. Purring has been shown to calm people, and you can’t really feel anything but happiness when you’re stroking your soft and warm purring cat.

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Featured Image Credit: Piotr Musiol, Unsplash