Zoë Kravitz says that you can’t read a cat’s face. True or false?

Zoë Kravitz plays Catwoman in The Batman, the latest episode in the Batman franchise. She appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on March 2, ahead of the film’s release. She discussed her preparations for the filming. She said that she studied cats before taking on the role. She agreed that she drank milk out of a bowl. I guess that she did this to get a feel for what it is like for a cat to drink milk from a bowl.

Comment: domestic cat should not drink straight cow’s milk from a bowl! It might give them diarrhoea because domestic cats tend to be lactose intolerant. That should have been mentioned in the show. We need to make sure that all cat owners are fully educated on cat caregiving 👌. I’m being a bit picky.

Zoe Kravitz says that people are creeped out by the lack of feline facial expressions
Zoe Kravitz says that people are creeped out by the lack of feline facial expressions. Screenshot from Jimmy Fallon interview.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

However, one interesting comment she made caught my eye. She said: “What I was so interested by was the fact you can’t read their face at all. Which is why I think people are creeped out by them; you can’t tell what they’re going to do”. I disagree with the “creeped out” observation. Wrong obviously because the cat is a massively popular companion animal worldwide. If they creeped out people, they wouldn’t be so successful.

Anyway, is her statement correct? Well, we know that domestic cats have impassive faces by which I mean that they don’t have faces which provide lots of information about their feeling through expressions. They have limited facial expressions compared to humans. But they do have facial expressions nonetheless.

If you are an aficionado of domestic cats and are close to your cat you can tell when they are in discomfort for example. Cats’ faces change when they are in pain for example. They become tighter and more pinched. This change in expression can be measured scientifically.

Here are before and after pictures:

Cat facial expressions: pain and discomfort
Cat facial expression of acute discomfort. Photo: PoC.
Cat facial expressions: pain and discomfort
Cat facial expressions: pain and discomfort

RELATED: Scientifically measuring the changes in a cat’s facial expression when in pain

Although, admittedly, it is a subtle difference which may be missed by a lot of people.

I think that cat caregivers normally read their cat’s mood from a combination of body language, routines, vocalisations and facial expressions. However, of these signs, facial expressions are probably the least useful in reading a domestic cat’s mood. And therefore, I would agree in a qualified way to Zoë Kravitz’s assessment.


Some studies on this topic provide insights

It has been found that cat owning participants in a study were able to read facial expression cues at a greater success rate than chance (not great then 😉) but the average scores were low. Women were more successful at the task than men. And younger participants were more successful than older participants.

They concluded that: “People can thus infer cats’ affective states from subtle aspects of their facial expressions (although most find this challenging); and some individuals are very good at doing so.”

A study dated 2017 found that when people adopt cats at shelters the cats’ facial movements and vocalisations did not affect the adoption decisions. They selected shelter cats that rubbed more on a first encounter. The study also found that “non-behavioural variables such as coat colour or age did not affect adoption decisions”. I would disagree with that quite strongly. Age does affect adoption decisions as does coat colour. In fact, we know that for a fact so this study has come to doubtful conclusions in my opinion.

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

AI in cellphone app can read feline facial expressions
AI in cellphone app can read feline facial expressions. Image: The Times.

RELATED: Cell phone app understands your cat’s facial expressions

Another study found that when cats are frightened, they have “feline facial actions” as they call it which include blinking and half-blinking. I would add that cats lick and swallow when they are slightly anxious. And at the opposite end of the spectrum, cats might show a right gaze and head turned bias during relaxed engagement in the words of the study report.

Why do cats have facial expressions which are much less animated than those of humans? It must be to do with evolution. The domestic cat is essentially a domesticated North African wildcat which is a solitary wild cat species. They don’t need to signal through facial expressions to other cats of the same species because they rarely meet others.

Facial expressions are to do with communication. Humans have developed very subtle means of communication through facial expressions. Domestic cats would be in a better position if they had similar facial expressions but their inheritance from the wildcat did not provide them with it.

P.S. “Facial expressions” do not include ear positions. I am referring to the actions of facial muscles on the appearance of the face only.

follow it link and logo