The inscrutable expressionless domestic cat has 276 facial expressions!

You may be one of those people – there are many – who think that the domestic cat is independent, aloof and almost expressionless. This much admired companion animal does not give much away in facial expressions because they can’t allow themselves to as a survival instinct.

Happy cat
Happy cat. Photo: Instagram.

However, a recent study revealed that domestic cats have nearly 300 facial expressions which includes a play face which has been developed especially for people.

They are not as aloof as people believe. The researchers recorded domestic cats’ facial expressions over 12 months among a colony of 50 cats in a Café in Los Angeles, California, America. The expressions range from the usual aggression to playfulness, the enigmatic smile and the grumpy face.

The research is said to be one of the 1st to have a good look at feline facial expressions as a way of communicating. The scientists say that humans have 44 facial expressions. Dogs have 27 and chimpanzees have 357. I am surprised. Humans have 44 facial expressions!? And cats have 276 facial expressions?! This turns what we thought we knew on its head.

Unhappy cat held in the wrong way makes a strange sound
Unhappy cat held in the wrong way makes a strange sound. Screenshot.

The study co-author, Brittany Florkiewicz, an assistant professor of psychology at Lyon College, Arkansas, USA, said: “The literature is so sparse, and many studies only focus on the connection between cats and humans over the course of 10,000 years of domestication. At a cat café, we were able to document spontaneous interactions between the cats and record their facial expressions.”

They found that each individual expression combined about 4-26 unique facial expressions. They included dilated or constricted pupils, curled corners of the mouth, nose licks, different depositions, blinking, and parted lips.

Brittany commented on two kittens who changed their facial expressions rapidly when interacting from playful to being confrontational. She said that, “It was surprising to see them play-fighting, and then things escalated into an aggressive encounter. You can see a change in their facial expressions. At first one cat’s eyes were more relaxed and its ears and whiskers were pushed forward, a movement to get closer to the other cat. But then things got ugly, and it moved its ears and whiskers backward – its demeanour changed pretty quickly.”

Angry grey cat?
Angry grey cat? Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay

RELATED: Reason why dogs have facial expressions and cats hardly do (wrong!!?)

The researchers concluded that 45% of the expressions were friendly while 37% were aggressive. Eighteen percent fell between these two extremes and were ambiguous.

They also revealed that the facial expressions were similar across a number of species including humans, dogs and monkeys. These included what they called a come and play face which is expressed when the corners of the mouth are drawn back and the jaw drops to form a laugh.

They don’t know what the cats were saying to each other. They hope that their study will help to shed some light on feline facial expressions and that it will counteract what appears to be the misleading thought that domestic cats are more or less expressionless.

Cat facial expressions: pain and discomfort
Cat facial expression of acute discomfort. Photo: PoC.

RELATED: Cat’s strong, clear, facial expression and strange sound signals annoyance about owner’s behaviour

They also hope that “animal shelters and humane societies can use our research to help better assess the cats in their care.” What she means there is that animal shelters assess whether a cat is adoptable or not through their behaviour which includes body language and facial expressions. A negative assessment can lead to an untimely death through euthanasia.

Pearl an angry looking sweet cat
Pearl an angry looking sweet cat
Cat facial expression. Quizzical and concerned facial expression. Picture in public domain.

Study title: Feline Faces: Unraveling the Social Function of Domestic Cat Facial Signals. Link to study: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beproc.2023.104959

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Language is the biggest communication barrier between human and cat, not the cat’s intelligence

I’ve been thinking about the fact that people relate to their domestic cat companion as a child and as a member of the family but accept the fact that they can’t communicate with their cat as they would a child. If only we could communicate with language to our cats, how much better the relationship would be. Or perhaps it wouldn’t? There might be more argument, disagreements and friction!

Language is the biggest barrier in the human-to-cat relationship not intelligence
Language is the biggest barrier in the human-to-cat relationship not intelligence. Image: MikeB

The barrier in communicating with our cat is because of their cognitive abilities and their inability to learn human language. But it is said by the experts that an adult domestic cat has the intelligence of a 2-year-old toddler.

And the reason why babies are much less intelligent than their adult counterparts is because they have to be born with underdeveloped brains to allow them to pass through the birth canal. It’s a practical, size issue. It is expected that a baby’s intelligence will develop outside the mother’s womb. That’s why babies are relatively unintelligent compared to adults.

In between the ages of two and three most children speak two and three word phrases or sentences. They might use around 200 words or even as many as 1000 words. They might start to ask basic questions. In short, they can communicate in human language.

But as mentioned according to experts a 2-year-old toddler has the brainpower of an adult cat. Knowing this, it tells me that if we could communicate with cats in a human language, they would be able to communicate back in that language. The relationship between human and cat would be transformed.

You could ask them to do certain things rather than ‘hitting and hoping’. You could explain to them that they’re going to be safe when they go to the veterinary clinic rather than watching them be terrified because you simply can’t explain what’s going to happen.

Or you might be able to suggest to your cat to do certain things to improve their life. I mean you could communicate your knowledge and intelligence to your cat through language.

That’s not to say that we don’t communicate with our cat. We do through body language, hand signs, sounds, habits, life rhythms etc. – all combined. You can even teach your cat sign language which, by the way, proves that they probably are about as smart as a two-year-old toddler.

RELATED: Can you teach a cat sign language?

But it is the barrier of human language which interferes with the human-to-cat relationship the most. I’ve referred to “human language”. It could be argued that it is up to humans to learn cat language. But cats don’t have a language. They make sounds and it can be quite a wide range of sounds. We all know the meow, normally a request for something like food. This is a learned vocalisation which evolved during the domestication of the cat. Between themselves, cats don’t meow anywhere near as much as they do between themselves and humans.

But we can’t meow back at them and have a conversation! We can’t learn and employ their language because they do not have a language as such. That said, humans do learn cat communication which as mentioned is a combination of behaviours. However, it is limited. It is a relatively blunt method of communication compared to the refinements of language.

And this limitation is a barrier to developing the relationship. We relate to our cat as a family member. Some people, like myself, interact with our cat on an equal footing to other humans. They have equal rights and are fully integrated into their family. But, and it’s a big but, the barrier to developing the relationship is in language; not so much the cat’s intelligence.

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Cat caving, cocooning and fridging!

I have created an infographic based on Jackson Galaxy’s very personal concepts and language when describing domestic cat behavior. He hits the nail on the head. You just have to translate his unique language 😃👌. This is about a perennial domestic cat problem: anxiety or fearfulness. A lot of cats are okay with decent levels of confidence and you can see it in their general behavior. Arguably too many cats come up a little short on confidence because of their inherent timidity and because they are living in the human environment; a land of non-feline behavior and giants.

Cat caves and cocoons
Cat caves and cocoons. Infographic by MikeB

He coins the word ‘caving’. It is easy to translate. Under the bed is the classic feline cave. Jackson calls these the ‘unders’ as opposed to the ‘overs’ of the fridge climbers or tree dwellers. Well, usually there are no trees inside the home so they climb something else. Think catio and artificial trees for an ideal bolt hole for an indoor cat.

Anxious cats very much like something over their head to feel safe. I think that it is important to distinguish between a temporary state of feline anxiety because of particular events and a general state of fearfulness which needs to be dealt with.

‘Fridging’ is also a way for cats to feel safer and alleviate some anxiety. But we have to be careful in distinguishing a desire to climb which is entirely normal and not necessarily linked to anxiety and a need to find a sanctuary high up. Often these desires merge to become one. It is a question of degree and it is about reading cat behaviour and body language to decide what is going on.

Jackson’s terminology ‘cocoon’ is an interesting one. He has used it to describe a place created by the cat’s human caregiver where they can feel safe but also ‘be part of household activity, because cocoons are eventually placed in socially significant areas’.

“Cocoons allow your cat to feel safe without disappearing”.

What Jackson wants is to gradually tease out of the scared cat some confidence through a realisation that their world is not so scary. He achieves this by creating a safe space where the cat can both feel secure while being integrated into human society and observe it rather than running from it.

In conclusion it is down to cat caregivers to read their cat’s state of mind through body language and caving and fridging (if this takes place) and take steps to build their confidence. Cocooning is one way and another is plenty of interesting and gentle human interactions which mainly means playtime.

Please share your personal experiences in a comment as they are most welcome. They are also valuable in terms of educating others.

Below are some more articles on anxiety or fearfulness.

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Former lawyer is now highly successful pet psychic who talks to animals

Nikki Vasconez, 33, used to be a lawyer earning a good salary but she was miserable. She was working hard but simply didn’t enjoy life. She was too frightened, as many people are, to get out and do something else. She began researching how to communicate with animals in September 2020 and discovered a passion and a talent. She worked part-time as a property lawyer and then eventually quit her job to become a full-time animal communicator a year later. There are two interesting aspects of the story for me.

Nikki now runs Nikki Vasconez Animal Communication
Nikki now runs Nikki Vasconez Animal Communication

Social media

She used social media including Facebook, Instagram and TikTok to dramatically grow her business. She used to solicit commissions from clients but because of the growth of in her business via her TikTok account she no longer has need to do this because her clients come to her. In fact, she is inundated with requests, usually by women, to talk to their companion animals.

But she’s a psychic and therefore she does not talk to them in the conventional sense of using body language and vocalisations but by using what appears to be an innate skill that she has. She does not request details about the animal because it prevents her ‘human brain from interfering with the messages’ that she receives. She looks at a photograph of the animal. She must see the animal’s eyes she says. She’s told the animal’s name, gender and the name of the people who are the caregivers. That appears to be about it.

She charges $350 for a one-hour session, which is not cheap. She says that she can “sense their personality” and “when I’m communicating with the animals, sometimes I see images flash across my eyes or I’ll hear particular phrases”.

She picks up these messages from the animals and relays them to their owners. Sometimes they are shocked at their accuracy. For instance, on one occasion she was speaking with a dog, Peter. The dog told her about a door in the kitchen which kept sticking and which drove his female owner mad. Her husband was shocked when she told them what Peter had said because it was completely accurate.

Pet owners want to communicate with their pets

So, the first interesting aspect of the story is that she communicates through psychic means rather than conventional means. The second interesting aspect of the story is that there is very clearly a deep need by many pet owners to communicate with their companion animals. And, as mentioned, 98% of these owners are women.

The lack of a common language to allow animals to communicate with humans is a great barrier between cat and dog caregivers (and other animals) and their companions. It is, however, a barrier that can be almost completely surmounted when a close bond exists between human and companion animal. This is because almost instinctively both parties understand the other through routines, rhythms, body language, vocalisations and the circumstances of the interaction. This is conventional human-to-animal communication and it works just as well.

It seems, however, that many people don’t have a sufficiently close bond with their pet to be able to communicate along these lines. And this is where a cat behaviourist such as Jackson Galaxy can help. They bridge that barrier between companion animal and owner and help the owner to understand their companion animal far better which in turn helps them to provide for them more efficiently and successfully.

Understanding what a companion animal is saying in the conventional sense relies upon an in-depth understanding of that species of animal and on human nature. It also relies upon understanding the mistakes that people make when providing care for a pet.

What’s remarkable about Nikki Vasconez, in employing psychic communication at a distance from a photograph, is that she appears to be accurate a lot of the time. In another example, a dog owner couldn’t understand why their dog was lying on their bed unable to do anything. She couldn’t work out what was wrong with her dog and neither could her veterinarian because they ruled out teeth issues as the x-ray showed no signs of a problem.

Nikki Vasconez “just kept getting this pain in my mouth while speaking with him so I believed he was telling me he had pain in his lower jaw. It turned out the x-ray revealed he had an abscess and needed a tooth pulled out!”

Anybody who wants going to business with pets might learn something from her story. The amount of money she charges per hour and the number of clients who come to her indicates to me that she earns a very good income indeed, far more than she earned as a lawyer.

Of course, there has to be some downsides. It can’t all be that rosy. Online on social media she does get criticism from sceptics who don’t believe in what she does. I can understand that completely. I am sceptical myself but I hope that I’m open-minded enough to let what she does speak for itself. If she is successful and she pleases her clients then that is good enough for me. And if it helps benefit the welfare of animals, so much the better.

But there will be a lot of people who simply do not believe in this kind of psychic communication. In fact, I would say that only a minority of people believe in it. But clearly a sufficient number do, judging by the number of clients who approach her. Nikki now runs Nikki Vasconez Animal Communication.

Below are some more articles on communicating with companion animals. The story comes from The Sun newspaper online for which I thank them.

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Cat (body) language and behaviour Infographic (modified)

This is a cat body language Infographic from Reddit.com. It has value. It’s a quick check or guide on how domestic cats communicate with us through their body language and behaviours. It may help one or two people. It is obviously useful to understand what your cat is trying to tell you, or what they inadvertently tell you, through their behaviour.

Cat body language and behavior infographic
Please click on the image to see it a little larger – you will stay on this page. Cat body language and behavior infographic. Source: Reddit.com and MikeB.

Humans are dependent upon both vocalisations and feline body language/behaviour to understand them. The same, incidentally, goes for the cat when understanding humans. Into the mix you can add routines and rhythms. This is because certain behaviours both from human and cat occur during specific times and those times occur in a rhythmical or routine way.

I felt that I had to modify the Infographic slightly. There are three instances. The slow blink is said by many to be a sign that your cat loves you. I have decided that this is a slight exaggeration. It is more about a cat signalling to their human caregiver that they are friendly and that they have friendly intentions towards them.

RELATED: Cat slow blink is a signal of friendly intentions.

And, the sideways stance of a cat with flattened ears and bristled fur is actually a defensive measure to signal to a predator that they are bigger than they actually are. The intention is to deter the predator from attacking. The cat might be frightened. They might even be terrified. However, is more likely to occur when they simply want to be defensive and are concerned or anxious. The word “terrified” is I think exaggeration in some instances. In fact, you’ll see kittens play like this. It’s a kind of practice run for when they are adult. Sometimes they play with their shadow and pretend that their shadow is a predator. Or when they play with other kittens, they take on a sideways stance and enlarge their body.

RELATED: Why do cats do the crab walk?

Crab walk cat
Crab walk cat. I added the yellow lines to highlight the flattened ears, the heightened arched and fluffed tail. The flattened ears protects them the rest make her look larger.

RELATED: 13 cat tail postures and movements and what they mean

The second individual Infographic image which is described as “friendly” is correct and it is often described as the “tail-up” position. When the tail is erect like this it signals to the receiving cat that they have friendly intentions and are not hostile. And they make the same signal to the human caregiver. The “attentive” Infographic focuses on the ears which are erect and pointing forwards.

RELATED: Adult domestic cat belly-up posture is a cat hug

The belly-up position is one which demonstrates trust but does not normally invite a belly rub. Some cats will invite a belly rub when they present their belly to their owner because they are particularly close to their owner. But often it is simply a sign of trust. If you do rub your cat’s belly, you know that it should be done with great respect as this is a vulnerable part of their body. If you dive in too hard, they will clamp onto your hand with all four paws with their teeth embedded into your hand 😁. You will be an imprisoned victim and the only way to remove your hand is to distract your cat.

RELATED: Cat ear positions

Reason why cats flatten their ears when threatened
Reason why cats flatten their ears when threatened. Image: MikeB

When the ears are flattened as in the “anxious” Infographic a cat is preparing for a potential fight. The ears are being laid flat to protect them. When you see feral cats, you often see that their ears have been damaged through fighting (see above). They are vulnerable to being injured because they project out of the head. When cats fight, they bite each other around the head and the ear is a natural object to attack. Abscesses often occur on the head through cat fights. The “frightened” and “threatened” Infographic both have flat ears for the same reason.

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Are cats sensitive to human emotions?

Are cats sensitive to human emotions? Insofar as human emotions affect body language, “most cats are extraordinarily sensitive to human body language, much more so than they usually receive credit for”. The quote comes from Dr. John Bradshaw in his book Cat Sense. He believes that cats are sensitive to human emotions when emotions are expressed in body language which they pretty well always are. Often too human emotions are expressed vocally and in behavioural changes. Cats pick up these changes and vocalisations.

Samson with stroller in background on his balcony in NYC
Samson with stroller in background on his balcony in NYC. Screenshot. See more on Samson by clicking on the image.

He believes that their sensitivity allows cats to adapt their behaviour to the people they meet. I would hope that everyone who lives with a domestic cat has an experience which confirms this observation by Dr. Bradshaw. It’s quite hard to be precise on this topic because human body language may be quite subtle and the cat’s reaction in detecting that body language may also be subtle. It is tricky to provide a clean answer.

I know that when I am angry (rarely, thankfully) my cat picks it up because he will not be quite so keen to sit on my lap or lie on my legs et cetera. He will tend to stay away a bit more than usual. Usually, he nearly always comes to me looking for contact and an emotional connection which I welcome. My personal experience supports Bradshaw’s.

Dr. Bradshaw carried out an experiment to see whether cats avoid people who dislike them such as people who are cat-phobic. He states that people who dislike cats often complain that they are the first person in the room a cat makes a beeline for, to use his words. He decided to test this theory. Incidentally, he could only find men who disliked cats. No woman he approached admitted to hating cats.

The cat haters were instructed to sit on a couch and not move when a cat came into the room. He reported that the cats “seemed to sense the disposition of the people they were meeting within a few seconds of entering the room. They rarely approached the cat-phobics, preferring to sit near the door and look away from them.”

He’s not sure how the cats detected the difference between the man who hated cats and those that didn’t. He suggests that they might be able to sense that the cat-phobics were more tense or that they glanced nervously at the cats or even that they smelled differently. He concluded that the cat’s reactions indicated that they can be “keenly perceptive when encountering someone for the first time.”

Not all the cats behaved in the same way because one of the eight involved behaved in an opposite manner in singling out the cat-phobic to give him the most attention, even jumping on their lap and purring loudly. This is not a science. Perhaps cats are able to get a gut feeling about somebody by the demeanour just like humans.

But, to return to the question in the title as to whether cats are sensitive to human emotions, if those emotions are suppressed as they often are then I don’t think a cat can be sensitive to them. But perhaps it is fair to say that even subtle differences in demeanour and behaviour due to the person’s emotional state, can be detected by a domestic cat.

A factor may be the closeness, at an emotional level, between cat and human. When the relationship is close there will inevitably be a merging of the routines between cat and human. They will interact regularly throughout the day. Cats can pick up on a change in routine and that change may be due to the emotional state of the person. For example, he or she might be far more passive and not wish to go outside. That will feel unusual for a cat who has routinely been able to go outside with their owner.

The point here is that emotions are expressed in various ways including behaviour through routines and habits and there’s no doubt in my mind that domestic cats can be affected by changes like this. We all know about cats picking up on the fact that they are going to be taken to a veterinarian. They hide or tend to avoid the carrier even though you have hidden it somewhere. They tend to know something is afoot. I think that this is a demonstration of their sensitivity towards their human companion’s behaviour.

Please share your experiences on this topic as it would help us to understand feline behaviour.

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