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.
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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

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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.

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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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