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What Is Your Cat Trying To Tell You? Study Sheds New Light On Feline Facial Expressions

Researchers identified over 125 friendly feline facial expressions, finding that cats aren't nearly as standoffish as many believe.

Sally Jones

Last Updated: May 17, 2024 | 4 min read

Grid of nine cat facial expressions.

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Cats often get the short end of the stick in public perception — especially compared to their canine counterparts. Many people consider domesticated felines to be nonsocial, aloof creatures. However, a recent study helps dispel this myth. The unique research finds that cats use over 275 different facial expressions to communicate.

This finding may not be entirely surprising for longtime kitty owners like those of us at Love Your Cat. Still, it’s exciting to see felines getting the scientific spotlight they deserve. Read on to find what this study’s observations reveal about our feline family members — and how it may help cat naysayers understand why cats are so amazing.

Highlights Of Findings

Scientists have extensively studied the behavior and emotions of other mammals, including dogs, humans, chimpanzees, etc., for years. However, research is sparse when it comes to felines. I’m excited to see cats getting the scientific spotlight they deserve. Below are some of the significant findings of this one-of-a-kind study, published recently in the journal Behavioral Processes.

  • Cats express 276 distinct facial signals during social interactions with fellow felines.
  • Results show that cat facial signals correspond to different social functions.
  • 45% of expressions were produced exclusively in a friendly context, while 37% were unfriendly or aggressive.
  • Researchers believe that these facial expressions are likely influenced by human domestication.

Background

After extensively researching chimpanzee interactions at the Los Angeles Zoo, UCLA undergraduate student Lauren Scott and UCLA doctoral candidate Brittany Florkiewicz decided to turn their attention to cats. Scott spent nearly a year recording video footage of interactions between 53 adult domestic shorthairs at the CatCafé Lounge, a non-profit rescue organization in Los Angeles. Subjects included 27 females and 26 males who were all spayed/neutered.

The Lounge has a large, open floor plan where visitors interact with the cats who are available for adoption. It turned out to be the perfect site to film spontaneous feline interactions. Scott was able to capture 194 minutes of video footage that featured nearly 200 communicative events. Then, she and Florkiewicz analyzed these interactions using the well-established cat Facial Action Coding System (or catFACS).

What Did Researchers Observe?

Most studies of cat expressions have focused on human-cat interactions or only unfriendly/aggressive communication between felines. However, this study encompassed all types of cat-cat communications. Scott and Florkiewicz found feline faces ranging from affectionate to aggressive and all kinds of “moods” in between.

The duo observed 276 distinct expressions consisting of combinations of 26 facial muscle movements (AU). AU included various shifts in ear position, whisker and mouth movements, blinks, pupil changes, nose licks, and more.

Interestingly, they found that about 45% of expressions were produced exclusively in a friendly context, while 37% were unfriendly or aggressive. The remaining expressions fell into both contexts, making them too ambiguous to categorize.

What Do Cat Facial Expressions Tell Us?

Scott, who’s now a medical student at the University of Kansas, and Florkiewicz, now an assistant professor of psychology at Lyon College, were able to identify some overall patterns in facial movements that can be useful in interpreting kitty communications for owners and future researchers.

For example, they found that the cats move their whiskers and ears toward other felines during friendly interactions and away during unfriendly encounters. In aggressive interactions, the cats’ ears flattened, and their pupils constricted, as reported by the Smithsonian.

Researchers also found a “common play face” among the cats observed. This face, expressed with a dropped jaw and the corners of the mouth drawn back (like the Joker’s face), was similar to “play faces” people, dogs, and monkeys make.

“These findings show it is good to look at a cat’s ears, eyes, and whiskers to understand if they are feeling friendly,” Florkiewicz told Earth.com. “Their mouth provides a lot of information about whether a catfight is likely. People may think that cats’ facial expressions are all about warning other cats and people off, but this shows just how social and tolerant pet cats can actually be.”

Study Implications

In a surprising contrast, this study identified 26 distinct facial movements in cats — very close to the 27 that dogs exhibit. “Our study demonstrates that cat communication is more complex than previously assumed,” Florkiewicz shared with CNN. Florkiewicz hopes to conduct future studies, observing feline facial expressions in other locations, like multi-cat homes and feral colonies.

This research also may result in an app that owners can use to record and decode their kitty’s facial expressions. According to Live Science, companies have already contacted researchers about designing an app.

Although these findings are exciting, much is still unknown about exactly what each expression means. Still, understanding the cues identified in this study may be able to help owners interpret their kitty’s communications or help people adopt a new cat who will be friendly with their current pets.

The Faces Of Love Your Cat

While this study largely focused on how cats communicate with each other, we’re cat-fanatic owners. If you’re like us, you likely already feel like you know what your feline companions are trying to tell you.

I asked my fellow colleagues at Love Your Cat, who are also longtime cat owners, to share photos of their feline family members’ many facial expressions — of course, including our interpretations of how they’re expressing themselves (or so we think!). Here’s a brief slideshow of the feline faces of Love Your Cat and our takes on their many moods. Do any of these look familiar to you? Hit us up in our comments!

Sadie- insert video here.

Understanding Other Kitty Body Language

Facial expressions are only one of the many ways felines use body language to communicate with fellow pets and humans. For example, did you know that cats have a huge variety of reasons for wagging their tails? Tail movement and position can tell you a lot about your kitty’s mood. And licking your face or rubbing your feet is more than just silly kitty behavior. 

What are some of the funniest expressions your cat makes? Please share in our comments.

Why Trust Love Your Cat?

Sally has over 20 years of experience in human health sciences research and communications. She’s also spent over 10 years researching domestic pet scientific studies. She keeps on top of everything pet-related, from cat behavior to health conditions and treatment. Sally is part of a dedicated team of feline professionals and cat fanatics who are committed to bringing our readers the best information, product reviews, and more for feline companions.

Cat pawing at FluentPet talk buttons.

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