An often-asked question in relation to domestic cats is, “Can cats smile?” It is a question about feline emotions as you can’t smile unless you are happy, a basic emotion. The experts and the observant cat caregivers believe or know that cats can at least experience basic emotions. They can feel happy but can they show it in a facial expression? We also know that cats are not the best in showing their emotions. This is the survivor in them. The don’t want to show weakness. That’s the reason given. But it is more than that. They have fewer facial muscles than dogs. Dogs are renowned for their enticing doe-eyed face designed to get what they want.
Cats have about 20 facial muscles, while dogs have around 42. This means that cats have less ability to control the movement of their facial features, and therefore fewer facial expressions. Additionally, the way cats’ eyes are set in their skull is different from dogs, which makes it more difficult for cats to show their eyes’ whites, a common indicator of emotions in many animals including dogs. However, cats have other ways to communicate, such as through body language, vocalization, and scent marking, which they use to convey their emotions and intentions.
A study titled: “Humans can identify cats’ affective states from subtle facial expressions” suggests in summary that people have some ability to infer cats’ emotions from their facial expressions, but that this ability is generally low and varies by factors such as gender, age, and professional experience with cats. Cats do express pain in their face.
The study found that people were most successful at identifying positive emotions in cats and that certain individuals, such as women, younger participants, and those with professional experience with cats, were more successful at this task. The study also suggests that personal experience with cats, such as owning a pet cat, did not have a significant impact on people’s ability to read feline emotions. The study’s authors suggest that understanding the factors that contribute to people’s ability to read cats’ emotions could help improve feline care and welfare.
The conventional response to the question in the title might be: “Cats do not have the ability to smile as it is a facial expression primarily associated with happiness or pleasure in humans and some primates. Cats do have a range of other expressions and body language that can indicate their emotions or intentions.”
The internet almost invariably states something similar. It is through body language that caregivers normally assess how their cat is feeling. Body language presents very clear signs if the observer knows domestic cats well and is familiar with their body language.
Looking at the image on this page made from a couple of Twitter images by an unknown photographer (please comment) perhaps it might be fair to say that individual cats respond differently when happy. Smiling might depend to a certain extent on the individual’s abilities.
That said, humans have to be incredibly careful not to misinterpret the facial expressions of domestic cats. Remember Grumpy Cat? Who doesn’t. She looked as if she permanently unhappy but she wasn’t as far as we know. Her downward turned mouth was due to her anatomy. She was a dwarf cat and ‘disabled’ to a certain extent. She died young as a result.
A cat breed with a fixed smile for the same reason is France’s only pedigree cat, the Chartreux, sometimes known as the ‘smiling cat’. But this is not a fixed smile on the tabby cat featured in the image. It is animated and active.
It is hard to interpret it as anything less than a genuine smile, an expression of happiness. But that assessment would go against science. But science is not always correct.
Dr Bruce Fogle implies that cats, like humans, release the feel-good brain chemicals oxytocin and dopamine when they are content and happy. There is no argument about cats feeling happy. They struggle to show it in human ways. We are so used to watching out for the most important sign of happiness: the smile and laughter. I don’t see a smile in my cat and he is extremely content (I would say that).
What’s the conclusion: The cat in the picture is an exception which proves the rule to use an old saying. Cats don’t have the ability to genuinely smile but there may be the very rare exception which is why I wrote this article.
Here is a picture on social media which goes against the grain of this argument. The photos challenge us to rethink about cats smiling.
Below are some more articles on feline emotions.
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