What facial expressions does your cat make?

Cat facial expressionBecause cats have fur, which is a barrier to effective communication through subtle facial expressions, they have developed excellent substitutes in scent recognition and sophisticated body language alternatives. That is my opinion. What do you think?

I have been wracking my brains trying to think of the facial expressions my cat, Charlie, makes. One came to mind. When he wants his breakfast, his eyes are wide open looking intently at me. Body language and vocalisations are combined with this wide-eyed look. He leans forward from his perch and cranes his neck forward. He lifts his bum up slightly so there is a gap under him which allows me to pick him up and take him to the food station. This minute, I cannot think of any other facial expressions that he makes.

Facial Expressions

A person or animal’s face is “the front part of a person’s head from the forehead to the chin1“. Facial expressions are made with the tiny muscles of the face. Do we include ears? A cat’s ears have many more muscles than human ears and consequently move a lot more and in doing so communicate to other animals but is ear movement a facial expression or body language? I think ears are not part of the face and therefore their movement is not a facial expression.

“Body language” includes facial expressions and body postures. It is a wider topic. “Cat facial expressions” is a difficult subject because it is easy to creep into pure body language. There is an overlap.

 Search results for “cat body language” on PoC

Facial expressions communicate mood. I understand my cat’s mood not from facial expressions but from a combination of body language, vocal communication and what he is doing.

The point I am making is that it is tricky trying to discern a cat’s facial expression unless we include the classic postures, which I would call body language. For example, hissing with the ears pulled back. Hissing is a vocal communication and the ears pulled back for protection is body language but I am not sure I see a facial expression in that behavior. Another example is tail up greeting.

This lack of obvious facial expression in the cat is highlighted by Grumpy Cat. She has a grumpy expression due to a skeletal deformity. This is a false grumpy expression. This cat’s grumpy face is almost unique because cats don’t do grumpy faces. The exception proves the rule. Neither do cats smile. Well, they might smile inside but we don’t see a smile with the ends of the mouth turned up slightly unless the photo is digitally manipulated (as in the picture heading the page).


Cat body languageA lot of facial expressions emanate from the eyes, mouth and forehead. For example, the furrowed forehead of a worried person. A cat has a face covered with dense fur. Even if a cat were frowning, which I suspect he won’t be, you wouldn’t see it.

If you can’t see a subtle facial expression clearly because of a barrier of dense fur, there is not much point in making it. It becomes redundant and therefore, over time, ceases to exist. There is little advantage for facial expressions for that species. Did the cat find other ways to communicate non-verbally: body language and scent (cats have a great sense of smell)? Cats have an extensive and very visible range of body language postures.

It seems sensible to me to state that cats do have some facial expressions – the wide eyed look comes to mind – but because they have fur, the focus of evolution has been on whole body movement as a form of non-verbal communication and not subtle facial movements.

There are 100 human facial expressions. Are there?! I am not sure but I’ll list five here:

  • confused
  • surprised
  • sad
  • tense
  • happy

My cat doesn’t tell me when he is confused through a facial expression. I am not even sure he is ever confused. Confusion is rooted in an emotion and I am not sure cats have that particular emotion. They have indecision. We can tell when a cat is unsure of what to do. They lick their nose and wag their tail left to right. Nose licking is a displacement activity like a human biting his nails. This is body language not a facial expression.


This brings me to a linked topic. Cat emotions. Of course, cats have emotions. Their emotions are largely communicated through very visible whole body postures.

What about the expression of pain? When humans are in pain we show it on our faces. We struggle to know when a cat is in pain. For me, the sign that a cat is in pain is not through a facial expression but his behavior. A cat in long term pain or discomfort will find a quiet spot and be quiet and just put up with it.

Declaw (pain)

Note the cat's posture here: cringing, fearful, reluctant to rest any weight on the bandaged paw

I have just remembered the photo of the cat who had just been declawed. She had a wide-eyed facial expression but most of the indications that she was in pain came from body posture: low down, trying to hide and keep out of the way because she had been attacked and injured.


One reason why cat facial expressions are topical is because a Sunderland based charity, Feline Friends, have very generously donated £400,000 to Lincoln University to research feline expressions and to “better understand when cats are in pain2.

Professor Daniel Mills is doing the research and he believes that cats “haven’t evolved sophisticated facial communication”. He seems to be agreeing with me. However, cats are sophisticated in communication. The objective of this research: to better understand when a cat is in pain and suffering by reading facial expressions.

To be honest, I have doubts about this research. Cats hide pain for the purpose of survival. There are minimal signals and even less in the way of facial expressions. This could be £400k down the drain.


  1. Free Dictionary
  2. independent.co.uk
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What facial expressions does your cat make? — 19 Comments

  1. Maybe only cat lovers can see it, but my cats have expressed joy, humor, mischief, shagrin, embarrassment, annoyance, rage, aloofness, insult, coyness, shyness, fear, pain, courage, warning, bravado,…. well, the list goes on. Animal psychics will tell you they DO FEEL as much as we do, others just think we are anthropomorphizing… clearly they don’t have a cl–, er, pay close attention.

    Oh well, we get what we get. I get that my Scottish Fold was exceptionally expressive to me and others.


    • Thanks Cass. I am a cat lover and I personally don’t believe cats do show that much in the way of facial expression. Yes, they may show these emotions but it will be through body language.

      Don’t get me wrong. What I state does not mean I don’t like cats. It just means I like to state what I think is true and if I am wrong, that is OK. I don’t mind being wrong.

      There are many photos of cats showing what appears to be facial expressions but they are always moments frozen in time that give the appearance of an expression but are in fact something else like a yawn.

  2. Can you notice the difference in a person’s expression through a slight change in the eyes? My Fold was VERY expressive through his eyes… whether he was looking at you directly or aside, how wide his eyes were, the pupils especially. I would ask him if he wanted a treat – one expression, then I would ask him if he wanted to go out into the garage – got an entirely different look from the eyes!!


    • Like Ruth, I think the eyes are the most expressive part of a cat’s face. I believe you’ll find the same thing with dogs. Dogs raise their eyebrows slightly and that gives a signal. I am not sure what it means though!

  3. I wish I could have taken a picture of Monty’s reaction to my playing my autoharp and singing yesterday. I was practicing an upbeat, fun song to do with my students at school and I was really getting into it, strumming a complicated strumming pattern and singing really loudly. I stopped and caught sight of Monty sitting on the arm of the futon, slightly puffed, with a mystified look on his face. It’s as if he was asking, “What the hell are you doing?” It was really cute. I just ignored him and sang it again.

  4. my cats can meow differently from when they talk to me or one another. when pumpkin wants something he can actually do the sad kitty eyes, and when they are angry the sigh and give a withering looks.

    • Monty has started talking to himself. I talk to myself all day long and I think he is picking up the habit. A couple times now he’s meowed a meow not directed to me or anyone– he was just sitting out there by the garage and once he did it in the house.

      He does have a “starving baby kitten” meow he will pull out when he’s hungry. I just realized he does seem to have a different expression when he’s trying to get me to feed him.

      I think there is a difference in his facial expressions, but it’s all from the eyes. Once I accidentally hurt him and he looked very surprised that I would do that. Very hard to tell a cat you didn’t do something on purpose. Tuna smooths things over.

  5. Cats definitely don’t exhibit “FACIAL EXPRESSIONS” akin to humans but have a very clear “BODY LANGUAGE” which can be studied to predict their behaviour.”Circus Big Cat” trainers and handlers control these “BIG CATS’ shby their own personal fear as well as reading the “BODY LANGUAGE” of their circus exhibits. Same applies to the domestic cat, only difference is that cats can’t physically harm their human care-takers. I can easily anticipate the feelings and wants of my 2 pet cats by their body language and purrs.

    • Thank you Rudolph. I am pleased to agree with me broadly speaking. I agree with you that we can read a cat’s feelings from other sources such as voice and body language.

  6. I think it’s that we can read our own cats expressions through instinct because they don’t smile or frown like we do, but all the same we know what they are feeling, if they are happy or sad or in pain or whatever.
    I was just watching Walter and Jozef this morning, it’s pouring with rain and both had a quick trip out, then dried, then their breakfast and then they sat pondering what to do next. Jo looked from the window to the couch, then looked again and I knew the moment he’d chosen the couch. Walt jumped on the windowsill but I just knew he didn’t really want to go, to me he looked to be saying ‘rotten weather’ and it looked like he was planning to stay in and sure enough he’s now on his high chair by my computer.
    I think with time and close friendship we can read our cats emotions and wants and they can read ours too.
    They don’t need words or facial expressions, they are far cleverer than we are.

    • we know what they are feeling, if they are happy or sad or in pain or whatever…..I think with time and close friendship we can read our cats emotions

      Absolutely, well said. Reading our cat’s feeling comes from a long, close relationship. You develop a full understanding each of the other. You don’t need facial expressions. In fact when I think about it human facial expressions can be irritating.

    • Jennifer, this is a great example of an expression which says I am bored. I think this is very supportive of the article or simple fact that cats do demonstrate facial expressions. Thanks a lot for another fantastic photograph of your fantastic cat.

  7. The pain shown by the poor cat above who has a bandaged paw due to being declawed…so cruel and totally unnecessary. We have had persians cats for the past 20 yrs and never ever have any of them scratched any furniture as we had suitable scratching posts for them. Being declawed would be the same for a human if they had their fingers taken off to the knuckle!! Please think about declawing before inflicting this barbaric torture on your cat.

  8. Thank you Michael…IMO don’t have a cat if you are going to torture them..they need their claws just like I need my fingernails and toe nails come to think of that..I’d hate to be without any of them!

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