Cat’s Out of the Bag on Your Pet’s Emotions

Our feline friends are famously tough to read, but new research suggests some people are adept at accurately reading their facial expressions.


Cats are currently known for being inscrutable, but this may not be the case forever. A new study from the University of Guelph has let the cat out of the bag on what our feline friends’ facial expressions can reveal about their moods, as well as who among us may be best suited to interpreting these subtle facial gestures.

The research was published last November in Animal Welfare, and was the first study ever to focus on feline facial expressions associated with positive emotions.

While negative facial expressions are well-understood, as well as the emotional language of feline body gestures, recognizing the range of emotions that cats can experience is crucial for those who interact with cats regularly — from veterinarians to pet owners.

“The ability to read animals’ facial expressions is critical to welfare assessment,” said Lee Niel, a co-author on the paper and associate professor at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College. “This is important to be able to do because it could help strengthen the bond between owners and cats.”

To determine just how much information we can glean from a cat’s expressions, the team behind the study asked participants from around the world to watch short cat videos and answer a questionnaire. While the researchers used additional body language (for example, kneading) to determine which emotions the cats were feeling, the videos shown to participants were cropped to only include the cats’ faces. This way, the researchers made sure that participants were being tested only on their ability to identify facial expressions.

The survey also didn’t include any cues that the researchers considered to be obviously associated with negative emotions, such as open mouths or fully retracted ears, because these expressions are typically understood by cat owners.

Overall, the researchers found that participants tended to score low — the average across all participants was 11.85/20 correct, which is just slightly higher than what could be attributed to chance. However, 13 percent of participants scored significantly higher than the rest, leading the researchers to conclude that certain people may have an inclination for reading feline facial expressions.

These so-called “cat whisperers” tended to be women, those with veterinary experience, or young adults, according to the study. Interestingly, whether or not a participant actually owned a cat had no correlation with their score. The researchers weren’t surprised that women tended to do better on the questionnaire.

“The fact that women generally scored better than men is consistent with previous research that has shown that women appear to be better at decoding non verbal displays of emotion, both in human and dogs,” explained Georgia Mason, co-author on the study and professor at the University of Guelph’s Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare.

Going forward, the authors are interested in learning how the ability to read cats’ expressions can be taught to others. Doing so could improve feline care and welfare for cat owners and veterinarians alike.

Do you think you might be a cat whisperer, too? The team behind the study released an online quiz where you can test your skills and get a sense of just how well you understand your feline friends.

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Emily Deibert is a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto with a passion for science outreach and communication. She earned her HBSc (Astronomy, English, and Mathematics) at the University of Toronto. She is excited about turning scientific research into stories and sharing these stories with the public.