Why do humans and dogs smile but cats don’t?

Why do humans and dogs smile but cats don’t? Firstly, I am not sure that dogs do smile but I’ll concentrate on humans and cats, two species that I know well.

Cat smile or feline anatomy?
Cat smile or feline anatomy? Is this a genuine smile like a human?
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Note: these are my thoughts because the experts don’t talk about cat smiles. If you have different ideas please leave a comment – thanks.

Cats smile in a different way

Cats do smile but they don’t use their faces (but see section on facial expressions below). They use their voices in their purr, their tail in their tail-up position and their noses in the nose touch. These are all feline ways to smile if we agree that a major purpose of the smile in humans is a friendly, non-threatening greeting.

Human smile

The great Charles Darwin suggested that the human smile has evolved from teeth baring in primates. In primates teeth baring means a show force but in humans it has evolved to tell the other person that you are not a threat and friendly. In the West, when we greet someone we shake hands in and smile. We want to start the relationship on a friendly footing.

Of course the human smile means more than this. It is also reflects how we feel. When we greet with a smile it is habitual almost forced behavior a lot of the time but it serves a purpose. When we are content and we smile it tells others our feelings of happiness.

Feline Purr

In cats, the purr does this. The cat’s purr both indicates contentment and like the human smile it can be used in appeasement by a subordinate animal towards a dominant one. Purring reduces the likelihood of an attack. Used this way the purr is not far from the greeting smile of humans. Kittens purr when suckling, which signals to their mother that all is well. It acts as a smile. Note: feline purring has other purposes too, which I discuss on other pages.

The feline tail-up is used to signal friendliness when meeting another cat. The nose touch is part of a friendly greeting. It is a bit like a handshake or a pat on the back. This is also similar to the smile. In fact humans often smile when shaking hands with a person they have just met.

My conclusion is that domestic cats don’t smile like humans because other methods have evolved as mentioned. Sometimes cats look as if they are smiling. This is because their face is built that way. The Chartreux is one of those cats famous for their smiling face. But this is not a genuine smile.

Feline facial expressions

My experience of feline facial expressions is that they are very muted and almost invisible but they can convey distress and chronic pain for instance. Conversely, it is possible that a cat might smile like a person but I am not convinced at the moment.

Dr Bradshaw

The well regarded book Cat Sense by Dr Bradshaw does not mention the smile. It is nowhere to be found in the book, which I think it significant. However, Bradshaw discusses the purr and its many uses. He writes:

“….each cat simply learns that purring under certain circumstances makes life run more smoothly.”

You can say exactly the same thing about the human smile.

8 thoughts on “Why do humans and dogs smile but cats don’t?”

  1. Mmmmmyeahhhhhh I’m going to have to call an audible on this one. While I agree that other body language is more dominant in cats than facial expressions, I have thought about this a lot and observed that they do possess a very minor ability to show emotional state in their faces. I’ve looked for it and found it there every day, more in some cats than others, but it’s there. It’s very subtle at first, but as I take note, pretty obvious to me. We’re just used to humans is all, and we’re pretty much the clowns of the animal kingdom. It’s the main thing missing from text communication on the internet, which is why we have so much difficulty determining what people are feeling, and why we had to invent emogies. We depend on facial expressions and voice fluctuations too much to stay out of trouble. Cats have a slight ability, it just takes practice to look for the nuanced subtleties. It’s mostly around the eyes and ears. Basically they’re best at expressing bright and cheery (happy), down, sad or mad. The trick is to study these emotions in the same cat. Obviously some cats start with a fixed face that might lean one way or the other. They all seem to start with a smiley face, (except Grumpy cat of course) but I have nevertheless seen that mouth curl slightly downward when sick or unhappy. You have to look for it hard and often I think.

        • Yes, I understand that. These are standard WordPress comments. If I used a ‘plugin’ for comments which were editable I’d have to leave the existing ones in place which would make three comment blocks as I have 2 already with the Facebook ones which can be editing. It is a technical/management issue.


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