Body language hints
The flick of an ear. A wrinkle of a nose. Those long, slow blinks. Cat owners have long believed their cats use body language to communicate their likes and dislikes. Now they have some science to back it up.
In a new study published in the journal Behavioural Processes, researchers identified a whopping 276 different facial expressions cats make when interacting with one another. “Cats are very expressive animals,” says study co-author Brittany Florkiewicz, PhD, an evolutionary psychologist at Lyon College. “People who’ve had cats probably won’t be surprised by that, but what is surprising is the number of expressions they make, especially when you compare it to other species. Gibbons, for example, have only 80, while chimpanzees have more than 300. So cats have a very diverse and rich repertoire of facial expressions.”
While the study didn’t delve into exactly what each of those 276 expressions means, it does offer some clues into which ones are friendly and which are not, and this could help pet parents decode their cats’ behaviour. Just be forewarned that the study focused on cat-cat interactions, not cat-human interactions, so you’ll have to look elsewhere for tips on translating the strange noises your cat makes and how to figure out if your cat is secretly mad at you. But here’s what the study just might reveal about your cat’s interaction with other friendly (or frisky) felines.
How did researchers conduct this study?
Florkiewicz and her co-author, Lauren Scott, studied 53 adult cats living at CatCafé Lounge in Los Angeles. “Cat cafes are perfect for this kind of research,” says Florkiewicz, “because the cats there can freely interact with one another and allow us to get these spontaneous, naturally occurring interactions.”
From August 2021 to June 2022, Scott spent approximately 150 hours visiting the cafe and collecting video of cat interactions using a handheld camcorder. She ended up with 194 minutes of facial-expression information. “Cats move very fast,” says Florkiewicz. “That was one of the obstacles: being able to anticipate the cat’s movements and being set to record when they have these spontaneous interactions.”
The researchers then coded the footage using Facial Action Coding Systems (FACS), a tool to identify subtle and overt facial-muscle movements, or “action units” (AUs). “Things like the pupils being dilated versus constricted, or the whiskers moving up, down, forward or backward, the ears moving forward or flattening, the corners of the lips going back, a wrinkle of the nose,” says Florkiewicz. “It’s the combination of those movements that create a facial expression, so by coding the video, we were able to identify all of these different facial-expression types and see which ones are associated with friendly interactions and which ones are associated with non-friendly interactions.”
What did the study reveal about cats’ facial expressions?
Florkiewicz and Scott identified 26 distinct AUs that were used to produce a total of 276 combinations. And while the researchers were impressed by the sheer number of facial expressions cats make – ”it was surprisingly high,” says Florkiewicz – they were also struck by how many of the expressions were friendly in nature. Of the 276 expressions, 45.7 per cent were seen in a friendly context, like when a cat was inviting another cat to play or groom, and 37 per cent were seen when the cats seemed less friendly with one another, often accompanying aggressive or defensive behaviour. (Around 17.4 per cent of the expressions were observed in both friendly and unfriendly contexts.)
The finding suggests that domestication probably played a part in helping cats develop their wide range of expressions. As domestic cats evolved, they had to learn to interact not just with humans but also other cats in multi-cat households. Even free-ranging, outdoor cats learned to congregate into colonies to afford themselves greater access to food sources and protection against predators. “Domesticated cats are very socially flexible compared to wild cats, who are very solitary,” says Florkiewicz. “Having a wide range of facial expressions was probably great for navigating different kinds of social interactions.”