Cats do have facial expressions, but you probably can’t read them

10 December 2019

A paper published in the latest issue of UFAW’s Journal Animal Welfare covers a recent study on cat facial expressions carried out by scientists at the University of Guelph in Ontario.  

 “Cats are telling us things with their faces, and if you’re really skilled, you can spot this” said author Georgia Mason, a behavioural biologist at the University of Guelph. “Some people can do it — that means there’s something there: cats are expressive. So cats may be hard to read, but that doesn't mean they're not expressing how they feel” she said.

Cats have a reputation for being “inscrutable,” the researchers say, and their results mostly back up this notion. More than 6,000 study participants in 85 countries, the vast majority of them cat owners, watched brief cat videos and then judged the animals’ moods. The average score was just under 60% correct, however, 13% of participants did quite well, scoring 75% or above (above chance) in their own tests. The researchers dubbed these achievers “cat whisperers” — and said their results are important.

Mason and her colleagues say the results are valuable because people tend to be less bonded to cats than to dogs and treat them more casually. Evidence that cats make expressions that some people can detect could lead to tools that help pet owners and veterinary staff understand cats better, she said.

Scientists have long known that humans greatly depend on smiles, eyebrow raises, furrowed brows and other facial movements to judge how other people feel. Since a 2010 study on the grimace-like faces mice make when in pain, researchers have grown increasingly interested in understanding animal expressions. 

Information on the paper in the November edition of Animal Welfare can be found here