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Researchers are keen to find out whether cats “catch” yawns from their owners in the same way some dogs do, as proof they feel empathy.

The contagious opening of the mouth can spark a chain reaction between humans who see each other as part of the same social group.

And previous research found dogs can catch yawns from their owners – which could prove their sympathetic feelings towards their owners.

Infectious yawning has also been found between other social animals such as budgerigars, rats and chimpanzees – with lions even using the sleepy symptom to communicate.

But it is feared our beloved domesticated felines may just see us as useful providers of food and shelter.

The age-old question which has been baffling boffins for years may soon finally be answered.

Study lead Karen Hiestand, a doctoral researcher in the Mammal Communication and Cognition Group who specialises in anthrozoology within the School or Psychology at the University of Sussex, said: “It’s clear that some cats have a special bond with their owners, but does empathy play a role in that bond?

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“Contagious yawning has been linked to empathy in humans and this claim has also been debated for dogs that ‘catch’ human yawns.

“Domestic cats have evolved from a solitary ancestor whereas dogs are highly social and have socially evolved capacities.

“I hope this study will help us understand more about our relationships with these two species and their evolution into our most common animal companions.”

The University of Sussex is asking 100 cat and owner pairings to come forward before May 31.

Participants will need to fill out a short online survey before filming yawning experiments at home in their own time for behaviour analysis