Because cats have fur, which is a barrier to effective communication through subtle facial expressions, they have developed excellent substitutes in scent recognition and sophisticated body language alternatives. That is my opinion. What do you think?
I have been wracking my brains trying to think of the facial expressions my cat, Charlie, makes. One came to mind. When he wants his breakfast, his eyes are wide open looking intently at me. Body language and vocalisations are combined with this wide-eyed look. He leans forward from his perch and cranes his neck forward. He lifts his bum up slightly so there is a gap under him which allows me to pick him up and take him to the food station. This minute, I cannot think of any other facial expressions that he makes.
A person or animal’s face is “the front part of a person’s head from the forehead to the chin1“. Facial expressions are made with the tiny muscles of the face. Do we include ears? A cat’s ears have many more muscles than human ears and consequently move a lot more and in doing so communicate to other animals but is ear movement a facial expression or body language? I think ears are not part of the face and therefore their movement is not a facial expression.
“Body language” includes facial expressions and body postures. It is a wider topic. “Cat facial expressions” is a difficult subject because it is easy to creep into pure body language. There is an overlap.
Facial expressions communicate mood. I understand my cat’s mood not from facial expressions but from a combination of body language, vocal communication and what he is doing.
The point I am making is that it is tricky trying to discern a cat’s facial expression unless we include the classic postures, which I would call body language. For example, hissing with the ears pulled back. Hissing is a vocal communication and the ears pulled back for protection is body language but I am not sure I see a facial expression in that behavior. Another example is tail up greeting.
This lack of obvious facial expression in the cat is highlighted by Grumpy Cat. She has a grumpy expression due to a skeletal deformity. This is a false grumpy expression. This cat’s grumpy face is almost unique because cats don’t do grumpy faces. The exception proves the rule. Neither do cats smile. Well, they might smile inside but we don’t see a smile with the ends of the mouth turned up slightly unless the photo is digitally manipulated (as in the picture heading the page).
A lot of facial expressions emanate from the eyes, mouth and forehead. For example, the furrowed forehead of a worried person. A cat has a face covered with dense fur. Even if a cat were frowning, which I suspect he won’t be, you wouldn’t see it.
If you can’t see a subtle facial expression clearly because of a barrier of dense fur, there is not much point in making it. It becomes redundant and therefore, over time, ceases to exist. There is little advantage for facial expressions for that species. Did the cat find other ways to communicate non-verbally: body language and scent (cats have a great sense of smell)? Cats have an extensive and very visible range of body language postures.
It seems sensible to me to state that cats do have some facial expressions – the wide eyed look comes to mind – but because they have fur, the focus of evolution has been on whole body movement as a form of non-verbal communication and not subtle facial movements.
There are 100 human facial expressions. Are there?! I am not sure but I’ll list five here:
My cat doesn’t tell me when he is confused through a facial expression. I am not even sure he is ever confused. Confusion is rooted in an emotion and I am not sure cats have that particular emotion. They have indecision. We can tell when a cat is unsure of what to do. They lick their nose and wag their tail left to right. Nose licking is a displacement activity like a human biting his nails. This is body language not a facial expression.
This brings me to a linked topic. Cat emotions. Of course, cats have emotions. Their emotions are largely communicated through very visible whole body postures.
What about the expression of pain? When humans are in pain we show it on our faces. We struggle to know when a cat is in pain. For me, the sign that a cat is in pain is not through a facial expression but his behavior. A cat in long term pain or discomfort will find a quiet spot and be quiet and just put up with it.
I have just remembered the photo of the cat who had just been declawed. She had a wide-eyed facial expression but most of the indications that she was in pain came from body posture: low down, trying to hide and keep out of the way because she had been attacked and injured.
One reason why cat facial expressions are topical is because a Sunderland based charity, Feline Friends, have very generously donated £400,000 to Lincoln University to research feline expressions and to “better understand when cats are in pain“2.
Professor Daniel Mills is doing the research and he believes that cats “haven’t evolved sophisticated facial communication”. He seems to be agreeing with me. However, cats are sophisticated in communication. The objective of this research: to better understand when a cat is in pain and suffering by reading facial expressions.
To be honest, I have doubts about this research. Cats hide pain for the purpose of survival. There are minimal signals and even less in the way of facial expressions. This could be £400k down the drain.
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