We Finally Know What Cats' Facial Expressions Mean


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

This, ladies and genltemen, is a very grumpy kitteh. Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Cats are decidedly aloof floof bags, and their thought processes are fairly mysterious. Consequently, they are the subject of numerous scientific studies.

Thanks to a brand new study by the University of Lincoln, we have now unlocked the secrets of their facial expressions. They’ll have nothing to hide from us now.


As reported in the journal Behavioural Processes, the team took a good look at 29 domestic cats contained within a Canadian animal shelter. Specifically, they used a complex computer software package called CatFACS (Facial Action Coding System) to detect the smallest changes in a furry companion’s facial expressions, with and without human interaction.

According to their analysis, cat facial expressions largely oscillate between “relaxed engagement, fear and frustration.” In this case, happiness or sadness doesn’t come into it. Cats are either pondering, plotting, afraid, or angry, which will make sense to plenty of cat owners.

Through an anthropomorphic lens, blinking and half-blinking cats may appear to be either indifferent or unimpressed with the seemingly stupid actions of their tall human landlords. However, this study describes blinking excessively as a fearful expression.

As expected, hissing – along with some thorough nose-licking – indicates frustration, as does a prominent revealing of their tongue and a flattening of their ears. Meowing loudly, mouth stretching, and the dropping of the jaw are also markers of an angry kitty.


When they are chilled out, they tend to tilt their head and gaze at things to the right of them, not the left. The latter suggests, quite curiously, that they are fearful of something.

Importantly, the researchers highlighted the possible limitations of their rather novel study.

“Cat faces are often covered in hair,” the team note. “This can make distinguishing the nuances of facial expression in cats, in general, challenging,” although they claim that their algorithm is able to somewhat circumvent this issue.

This study was also based on rescue cats, not those living with humans, so their behavior could be described as outside the norm.


Chances are that domestic cats in actual homes have a wider range of behaviors while lacking others – so until a more comprehensive study is conducted, you’ll have to assume that you’ll never quite know what your cat is plotting based on its frustratingly adorable face.

Ermahgerd. Ingus Kruklitis/Shutterstock

Other recent cat-flavored studies have concluded that they’re living longer than ever before, may be afraid of cucumbers, and that they love solving puzzles. They’re little lion incarnates, they know our voice but like to ignore it, and there’s a chance they understand the laws of physics.

They’re also nicer than we think they are, but unlike dogs, they don’t dream of us – they dream of murdering things. Bet that’ll give you paws for thought.


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