Cat Facial Expressions: Did My Cat Just Make a Face at Me?!

cat facial expressions

Reading Some Meaning Into Your Cat’s Facial Expressions

Cats are famously enigmatic and mysterious animals. As part of their inherent mystery,  it may not always be easy to tell how they’re feeling just from looking into their eyes. After all, their faces may often seem expressionless. This may help to explain the wild popularity of our dearly departed “Grumpy Cat” (may he rest in peace) as a rare feline with visible ‘tude on full display, always.

The truth is that cats do show their feelings in their faces, but we humans simply aren’t the best at decoding the signs they’re offering us via their expressions. Two Canadian studies have shown what physical factors we should be looking for, and just how many of us aren’t picking up on them. Read on to learn a bit more about what your cat may be trying to tell you with that funny look on their face.

Knowing the Signs to Watch for in Cats

Most people naturally know that purring cats are often content, and hissing cats are not so pleased, but what if the sound factor was taken out? 

One 1979 study looked at indicators of fear, frustration, and “relaxed engagement” in 29 cats at a Canadian shelter. The visual elements they associated with fear were “blinking and half-blinking,” as well as cats’ tendencies to look downward and to the left. Conversely, one major sign of “relaxed engagement” was a tilting of the head to the right. 

So, if you come home from work and find your cat looking up at you and tilting his head to your left (his right), he’s glad to see you; if she’s looking down at your right shoe (her left), she might be a little afraid. 

If he’s licking or wrinkling his nose, however, or raising his upper lip, he might be frustrated by being cooped up indoors, or because you forgot to feed him that morning. Tail and ear movements, in addition to facial structure, can also factor into a cat’s expression of its feelings. 

understanding cat expressions

Seeing the Signs From Your Cat Friend

A more recent study at the University of Guelph seems to indicate that, 40 years later, we haven’t gotten any better at picking up on these cues. After giving over 6,000 people in 85 countries a quiz consisting primarily of those YouTube cat videos we all love so much, researchers found that participants averaged only 59% correct when trying to determine whether a cat’s facial expression was positive or negative. 

The superstars who topped 75% (only 13% of quiz-takers) – known in the study as “cat-whisperers” – were mostly professionals like veterinarians whose jobs require an acute ability to tell how an animal is feeling, both physically and emotionally, in order to determine the best treatment if something is wrong.

Why the Signs Matter When It Comes to Cats

The primary researcher behind the study, Dr. Georgia Mason, believes that picking up on these emotional cues in cats can do a great deal to improve our relationships with them as pets. We tend to bond more readily with dogs because their emotions are more apparent – a wagging tail, expectantly raised “eyebrows,” even a beaming smile. This in turn prompts us to become more attached to them. 

We don’t always feel that immediate warmth toward cats precisely because they’re so tough to pin down feelings-wise. So if we make more of an effort to understand their expressions, we might be able to strengthen the human-feline bond between cat and cat-parent.

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