COMMENT: There’s a new study published online which looks at the way the normal facial expressions of a domestic cat are distorted by selective breeding when creating purebred cats with extreme appearances. It makes sense because the neutral facial expression of some of these breeds are heavily distorted from the normal. At least this will tend to mask a normal, neutral expression and subtle feline expressions reflecting emotions.
Breeders try and create an appearance in a domestic cat, such as the well-known Persian, which is considered attractive to people. I think the breeders are misguided because I don’t find these extreme breeds attractive but there’s no accounting for taste. The important scientific aspect of this extreme breeding is that the normal facial expressions of a domestic cat which can indicate, for instance, that the cat is in pain are no longer as effective or are ineffective. In fact they can mislead.
For example, the scientists say that cat breeds with juvenile faces (paedomorphic breeds) have neutral facial expressions which indicate that the cat is in pain compared to other breeds. That’s my interpretation but to use the words of the scientists: “Additionally, for several paedomorphic breeds, their neutral face shapes produced scores indicative of greater pain, compared to most other breeds, including the DSH cats actually in pain.”
What they’re saying is that breeding cats to a distinct appearance for human pleasure can interrupt or disrupt the “communicative content of animals’ faces, in this case a domestic cat”. And mislead to give the impression to human observers that a cat is in pain. This may present as a subtle background impression which the human does not consciously notice but which affects how they interact with their cat.
The scientists also decided that it appears to them that the people who buy purebred cats and who like their appearance have a preference for facial features which give the impression that the cat is in pain. We already know that people have a preference for an infantile appearance i.e. baby appearance, but this finding goes beyond that to add pain to the expression. A baby feline appearance is achieved by creating a cat with large, round eyes and ear pinnae (ear flaps) that are folded to the head – the Scottish Fold. This accounts for the current popularity of the breed despite its inherent potential and actual severe health issues.
It is suggested that people might be attracted to this because it brings out their mothering or fathering instincts allowing them to treat the cat as a child or baby. This is my interpretation of the findings.
It is a bit disturbing to read that they found that although it is possible to scientifically read a cat’s facial expressions to detect the difference between pain and no-pain these differences were no longer detectable if you take into account the purebred cats which have been selectively bred. Once again, I suggest, that that is my interpretation of what they say.
It should be said also, and this is my opinion, that although it has been found that a domestic cat’s facial expression noticeably alters when the cat is in pain, it is a subtle difference and secondly the percentage of purebred cats in comparison to the overall population of domestic cats is very small.
Therefore, you have to conclude that the distortion of facial expression within the purebred cat population is of minor consequence because most people live with random bred i.e. non-purebred cats. Amongst the moggy population, there will be no distortion of facial expressions due to selective breeding it seems to me.
A further observation that I have is that the researchers, although highly technical and scientific, don’t know the domestic cat very well because I feel that they’ve got slightly mixed up in their assessment concerning the importance of selective breeding in the context of the world population of cats but nonetheless it is a valid study. Purebred cats are relatively rare in many countries.
In summary, and this is the important bit, they suggest that breeding domestic cats with an appearance which pleases people (anthrocentric) can lead to a situation where the face is unable to communicate through facial expressions as effectively as normal. In their words, “anthropocentric selection might disrupt the communicative content of the face.”