A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Why Cats Should Teach

Feline emotional intelligence serves children better than testing

By Gay Bradshaw

I believe cats to be spirits come to earth. A cat, I am sure, could walk on a cloud without coming through. -Jules Verne

Our society places much stock in being intelligent and having smart children, which is why schools administer so many different kinds of tests. But over the last decade, educators and parents have seriously challenged such approaches, standardizing tests, and the premise upon which they are based.

Children increasingly lack the emotional and social intelligence that are hallmarks of animal societies.

Psychologists also make the point that there is much more to intelligence than being good at solving problems and memorizing numbers and names; intelligence has to do with pro-social emotions and moral development.

Significantly, today’s W.E.I.R.D. (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) societies score poorly in this arena when compared with other animals and our subsistence human ancestors. Children increasingly lack the emotional and social intelligence that are hallmarks of animal societies. The domestic cat does not, however.

Wrongfully impugned as stand-offish and cold, in reality Mehitabel and her compatriots score off the charts when it comes to emotional intelligence.

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is generally described by four abilities: how well we perceive emotions in others, how we use our emotions, how we understand our own feelings and those of others, and how we regulate and manage emotions.

Sheep, cats, and other animals are keen detectives at identifying nuanced shifts in expressions, not only of their own species, but those of humans.

This should come as no surprise. Like human brains and minds, those of cats are shaped by early interactions with parents during what neuroscientists call right brain-to-right brain communication.

Psychological and communication overlap among species is natural because we all use the same “mental and emotional activities in reading an animal as we do in reading a human” – a point that Charles Darwin made 150 years ago in his studies of emotion. What we perceive relies extensively on “nonverbal channels of communication in day-to-day emotional as well as interpersonal exchanges.”

Indeed, Darwin said, the “verbal channel, language, is a relatively poor medium for expressing the quality, intensity and nuancing of emotion and affect in different social situations …. [and] the face is thought to have primacy in signaling affective information.” Emotional information, conveyed through facial expression and touch, starts well before we begin to learn how to say words.

Emotional intelligence in cats

Cats are also masters of harnessing emotions to help them figure things out. Once it was thought that emotions only muddied clear thinking, but no more. Emotions play a key role in helping make good decisions. The emotionally intelligent cat knows just how use moods and emotional intuition to match the task at hand, whether it is a mouse to be caught or a sibling to be played with in the right way so as not to start a fight.

This brings us to the third kind of empathetic skill that our feline kin possess.

Cats are masters of harnessing emotions to help them figure things out.

Cats employ the same skills to read what an unfamiliar cat or dog is thinking as they do when trying to fathom what their human guardian needs, be it a playful swat or an affectionate purr. Just like colors of the rainbow, moods and feeling change subtly.

Psychologist Pat Sable has written that in terms of “attachment and affect regulation … [companion animals] are acutely attuned and responsive to their [guardian’s] moods and movements.” Their finely-tuned interpersonal and pro-social capabilities are evidenced by the fact that cats and dogs “rarely evoke the kinds of negative feelings or conflict to which human interactions are susceptible” and can elevate oxytocin levels of their guardian within 30 minutes.

Cats possess as many emotions and feel as deeply as we do. The only real difference is that individuals and species, like different human cultures, express their feelings in different ways. No one would argue that someone from the cool lands of Finland feels any less than someone from colorful Italy. Cats, dogs, humans and even fish need as much love, care and concern as we desire for ourselves.

If we are truly committed to revitalizing empathy and care in lieu of violence and indifference, then schools would be well advised to hire cats for our children’s education and school administration.


Gay Bradshaw Ph.D., Ph.D. is Executive Director of The Kerulos Center. She is the author of Elephants on the Edge: What Animals Teach Us about Humanity, an in-depth psychological portrait of elephants in captivity and in the wild. Her work focuses on human-animal relationships and trauma recovery of species that include elephants, grizzly bears, tortoises, chimpanzees, and parrots. She writes the Bear in Mind blog on Psychology Today.