Why don’t domestic cats express their emotions through facial expressions like humans?

Domestic cats, in general, have this deadpan face. It is not entirely expressionless but, compared to humans, cats’ faces are relatively impassive. Their faces do show pain, however, when it becomes quite pinched and tense looking. It is quite noticeable and it varies with the amount of pain that the cat is suffering from.

All the other range of emotions that shine through the face of a human don’t seem to be there. The smile is one example. We can see a smile sometimes in some cats but it is a anatomical feature not an expression of happiness. And another is the sign of irritation. Grumpy Cat was not genuinely grumpy. She just had a strange facial anatomy. The sort of facial expression a person makes when they meet someone is not present in domestic cats, it seems to me. Sadness and unhappiness is hard to notice in a domestic cat unless you are very sensitive to your cat buddy and you know them intimately. Under those circumstances you may see a difference.

Car facial expressions
Car facial expressions. Is this cat surprised or just looking intently? Photo: Pixabay
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But it is a source of difficulty in the human-to-cat relationship that we are unable to see and read feline facial expressions. We have to understand what they want through their vocalisations, their routines, their behaviours and body language. A cat’s behaviours are very important in communicating messages to us. For example, my cat will place his paw at the point where my duvet cover edge intersects with the bed sheet to tell me that he wants to go under the duvet cover. It’s a neat form of physical communication.

Anyway, back to facial expressions. I think one major reason for this relative dearth of facial expressions is because although they have similar facial muscles to humans they have fewer of them so their faces are more difficult for us to read. That’s the first issue as I understand it.

The second reason is perhaps to do with their ancient history by which I mean they are ultimately domesticated African-Asian wildcats. These are solitary animals and therefore there was little opportunity over thousands of years to evolve facial expressions before they were domesticated. There were no recipients of what would have been a smile. There was no other cat opposite to project those facial expressions too. Therefore they didn’t develop. Domestication is changing that. In a thousand years domestic cats will have a broad grin when they greet us.

Another reason might be because domestic cats have learned to present a stoic face to the world in order to survive more easily. They don’t want to send out signals to hostile predators that they are vulnerable.

And lastly, it is probably correct to say that domestic cats don’t have such a wide range of emotions as humans. If they lack certain emotions or they have a limited number of emotions it logically follows that they will have less facial expressions to project those emotions to the world.

Although, the question of feline emotions is an ongoing work in progress project because people are gradually learning that they have more emotions than they once thought. We all know they certainly have the basic emotions such as happiness and sadness, anger and a peaceful feeling but can they experience grief, humiliation et cetera. I doubt it but, as mentioned, we are learning.


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