The domestic cat’s unexpressive face

The domestic cat, we have to admit, has an unexpressive face compared to that of humans. This allows us to project our thoughts onto our cat. The reason is because their ability to be social is only a few thousand years old. The domestic cat has evolved from a solitary animal to a social one through their domestication. You properly know that it is believed that the wildcat was first domesticated about 9,500 years ago. If the theory is correct we could expect the domestic cat to gradually evolve more facial expressions than they have today in the long-term future.

Grumpy Sphynx Cat
Grumpy Sphynx Cat. Photo on Instagram and by Sara and Brent.
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It’s easy to believe that cat domestication is complete, a finished product. It isn’t. There’s a long way to go and I would expect a different sort of domestic cat at the end of the next 9,500 years. Perhaps the rather unexpressive face of the cat is why ‘cat celebrities’ with grumpy faces have been so popular. They are highly unusual but as we know these are fixed expressions due to the anatomy of the cat concerned. They are not genuine facial expressions.

On the issue of domestic cat facial expressions, it is said that there is a tendency among cat breeders to create cats with facial expressions that can mislead. It appears that cat breeders have discovered that certain facial expressions are popular with the public such as baby-faced cats but these faces can project the impression that they are in pain in a subtle way. This may subconsciously trigger a favourable reaction in the person and certainly the baby face encourages affection from their owner.

Pokey and Grumpy Cat
Pokey and Grumpy Cat. Pictures in the public domain.

Selective cat breeding of this kind may impact, a study suggests, the way cats communicate with each other. In other words, selective breeding may have impacted their ability to effectively communicate with each other through facial expressions.

The lead researcher, Dr Lauren Finka, a feline behaviour and welfare specialist at Nottingham Trent University’s School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences, conducted a study with others which has been published in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science on this subject. She said, “Our work suggest that breed-related issues may not only affect cats’ physical health, but also their communicative abilities…Our preference for them to have features that we find cute…may have unintentionally disrupted their ability to clearly express themselves and communicate.”

They analysed pictures of almost 2,000 cat faces including the popular extreme bred purebred cat such as the Persian and including other popular breeds such as the Norwegian Forest cat and Bengal. The researchers believe that signals presented by facial expressions may be disrupted. They say that “Many cat owners will be aware of the different facial expressions their cats display”. I would have to say that I disagree with that thought because, as mentioned, the domestic cat’s facial expressions are quite limited. As the title suggests the domestic cat has an essentially unexpressive face due to late development in becoming a social animal.

Persian cat MATT looking very grumpy
Persian cat MATT looking very grumpy. Photo in public domain.

The suggestion is that sociability develops facial expressions in order to communicate more effectively. Also, we are speculating as to how domestic cats communicate between themselves using facial expressions. I would doubt that they rely on faced expressions to improve cat-to-cat communication. It is possible that domestic cats do not rely at all, in any way, on each other’s facial expressions but solely on vocalisation, body language and behaviour. Therefore I would call into question some of the conclusions of the study.

There is one thing that is sure however: the domestic cat’s face is rather expressionless due to evolutionary reasons.

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