We expect our cats to smile like people

We, the humans in the cat-human relationship, tend to humanise (anthropomorphise) our cats. The round headed Persian, for example, with big eyes is meant to mimic a baby and trigger mothering instincts which is why it is the world’s most popular cat breed despite being inherently unhealthy with a 35% chance of getting PKD (polycystic kidney disease) to name one health problem only.

Smiling Chartreux cat

Smiling Chartreux cat. Photo: copyright Helmi Flick.

As a consequence, subconsciously, we tend to expect a smile from them when we speak to them nicely. But cats don’t smile. The domestic cat can look awful serious sometimes. Perhaps inscrutable is the better description. It is the deadpan face of a predator who shows no weakness.

People who revile cats refer to the cat sneer. They innocently ask, “Why do cats sneer?”. They certainly are driven by the false expectation that cats should show a more friendly face. We do associate the smile with friendliness.

Whereas cats associate the tail up and a rub against a our legs as a friendly greeting we prefer to smile and say a few warm words. It is different and we need to appreciate it.

One human way of signalling that we are non-threatening is to smile at the other person. For cats it is the tail-up position. Neither is better than the other except the tail up is a more positive signal. Smiles are often faked for various reasons. I wonder if the feline tail-up position is ever faked to give a false signal? It is unimaginable that cats would do that. They don’t participate in fakery and game playing which is one reason why we love them. Fraudulent smiles are a human skill.

The only way a cat is going to smile is when their anatomy allows it. The Chartreux, a French breed of cat, has a faint permanent smile. It’s just the anatomy; the breeding. The most famous facial expression, the grumpy downward pointing mouth, is on Grumpy Cat. That too is an accident of feline anatomy. As we all know it has nothing to do with the feelings and character of the cat.

I believe that the domestic cat’s inability to smile is a barrier to it’s success. Not that cat domestication has been a failure, far from it. However, there are many people who are ambivalent or downright hateful towards the domestic cat and one element that causes it might be the inscrutable feline face. I wish evolution had given the domestic cat a nice smile. It would be a lot easier for humans to read their minds. But then again perhaps they would have evolved the fake smile as well. Also in the animal world a smile, the baring of teeth signals aggression.

It’s said that smiling makes us feel better. What does a cat do to feel better?

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About Michael Broad

Michael is retired! He retired at age 57 and at Aug 2018 is approaching 70. He worked in many jobs. The last job he did was as a solicitor practicing general law. He loves animals and is passionate about animal welfare. He also loves photography and nature. He hates animal abuse. He has owned and managed this site since 2007. There are around 13k pages so please use the custom search facility!

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