Categories: Training

Do cats understand smiles?

This is an interesting question. Cat owners will have to rely on their own experiences and their knowledge of cat behaviour to answer it because you won’t find the answer in books.

The answer is in human body language and how cat’s observe it. Cats do understand the tone of our voice, its general sound and our body language. They are good observers and can connect our behaviour with the signals we give using the sound of our voice, body language and general demeanour. And a cat can learn from their owner the message that the owner wishes to communicate at a fairly simplistic level. In other words cats can be trained with patience.

“Most cats are extraordinarily sensitive to human body language” – Dr Bradshaw of Cat Sense.

Cats connect the time of day and tone of voice to know when she’ll receive food, for instance. That’s a good moment for the cat. If a person smiles at the same time a cat might be able to connect that aspect of body language with a time when she is fed. Cats don’t automatically understand the human smile as a friendly expression but a cat should be able to learn that the human smile is a friendly signal and perhaps that something nice is about to happen.

Humans inherit or learn the ability to understand the smile but cats don’t. Cats inherit or learn the ability to read cat body language such as the tail up position (signifying a friendly cat) and the nose touch (a friendly greeting). The cat signals friendliness to other cats through the purr as well as it reduces the likelihood of an attack and is a signal of appeasement. So cats are alert to body language signals.

But the human smile is not in their repertoire of expressions although I believe its connection with human actions could be learned. There will be no certainties and it will depend on the cat and the cat caretaker. My theory is based on the fact that cats don’t smile or frown unless the cat is Grumpy Cat – but her frown is an anatomical defect not a facial expression indicating an emotion – and that cats can be trained.

Note: I am guessing to a certain extent and have some doubts whether a cat could recognise the smile but I believe that they can. As for understanding the human that’s a different matter. For cats, as mentioned, it will be more a matter of connecting body language with action rather than a natural ability to understand that a smile means friendliness and happiness (or pretending to be happy 😉 )






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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

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  • By the way, I just remembered that horses smile and frown when feeling good or bad too. Perhaps most animals do as all have facial muscles, it's just that humans and primates developed their use to the greatest degree.

  • As always, I am with you Michael, especially with the concept of associating body language with predictable situations - something good, bad or in between. I must add, again as usual, that I am certain cats DO smile and frown, but it is (again as I've said before) a matter of degree. It is so slight, so nuanced, so minuscule a physical change that unless you're intently and repeatedly looking for it, you're not going to see it. Just like (famously when George Carlin said cats don't have eyebrows, just a bunch shit sticking out of their head!) they do have very slight indications of raising and lowering in tune with their mood or emotion. You have to see beyond the shit. And, being that the whiskers grow out from that area of flesh, they tend to follow the slight down or upturn, but I watch just the hair closest to the skin. I think you also have to be very familiar with each cats' face to see it change.

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