Cats Have Plenty Of Facial Expressions, Humans Are Just Rubbish At Recognizing Them

What is she thinking? Christopher Carpineti/IFLScience

Cats have a (possibly unfair, possibly not) reputation for being aloof and hard to read, but it seems that’s more on us than on them. According to a new study, our furry friends have plenty of facial expressions they use to communicate, it’s just that only 13 percent of us are very very good at understanding them.

The study, published in Animal Welfare, had 6,329 people looking at 20 videoclips of cats, focusing on their faces. The subjects were asked to work out if the cats were feeling positive or negative and on average they scored better than if they just guessed, but this was still only an average score of 12 out of 20. Just 13 percent performed well, scoring 15 out of 20. Interestingly, women were better than men at correctly recognizing felines' expressions. There was also a generational gap with younger people faring better than older people.

“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 humans and dogs,” co-leader of the project Profesor Georgia Mason from the University of Guelph said in a statement.

Being around cats in a professional capacity, such as being a veterinarian, also helped in better understanding what the cats in the videos were feeling. Surprisingly, being a cat-owner or cat lover didn’t give an advantage. In general, positive cat expressions were more easily identified than negative ones.

Do you really have to ask what I think of my new neckerchief, Karen? Lisa Charbonneau/Shutterstock 

“The ability to read animals’ facial expressions is critical to welfare assessment. Our finding that some people are outstanding at reading these subtle clues suggests it’s a skill more people can be trained to do,” co-lead author Professor Lee Niel, also of the University of Guelph, explained.

The findings show that being good at reading cat expressions is not something people are born with, it is something you can learn, which is good news for cats. People can be trained to understand their cats or cats in general better.

“This is important to be able to do because it could help strengthen the bond between owners and cats, and so improve cat care and welfare,” said Niel.

No doubt there are some things cats will have no problem making their feelings clear about, like the fact you've been holding them like an amateur your whole life. However, if you’re curious to know how well your cat-reading abilities are, or as the researchers call it “being a cat-whisperer”, you can take the test on the research team’s website.

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