Felicity Muth writes What We Understand about Cats and What They Understand about Us:
One way in which we frequently attempt to interact with the animals that live with us is by pointing at things. It is possible that this shows our limitations rather than our animal friends since this is a particularly human means of communication. However, in 2005 a study by Miklósi et al. demonstrated that cats could indeed follow human gestures to find food. The researchers also investigated whether, when unable to solve a task, whether the cats turned to the humans for help at all. They did not.
Another study looked to see whether cats turn to humans when unsure about a certain situation. This ‘social referencing’ is something that we do both as children and as adults, for example a clown might initially seem terrifying but if everyone else is having a good time we may quickly learn that this isn’t a situation to be feared (there are always exceptions to this of course). To see whether cats do this too, the researchers exposed cats to a potentially scary fan with streamers. The cat was brought into a room with their owner and the fan was put on. The owner was then told to act either neutral, scared of the fan, or happy and relaxed around the fan. The researchers found that most cats (79%) looked between the fan and their human owner, seeming to gauge their response. The cats also responded to the emotional response of their owner, being more likely to move away from the fan when their owner was looking scared, as well as being more likely to interact with their owner. It’s difficult to know how to interpret this, but the authors suggest that the cats may have been seeking security from their owner.
Other research has also shown that cats are sensitive to human moods, being less likely to approach people who were feeling sad and more likely to approach people who described themselves as feeling extroverted or agitated. However, why this should be isn’t clear.