Cat whisperers : People can infer a cat’s affective state from subtle aspects of their facial expressions


Cats have a reputation for being hard to read, but new research from the University of Guelph has found that some people are veritable “cat whisperers” who excel at deciphering subtle differences in cats’ faces that reveal mood.

Women and those with veterinary experience were particularly good at recognizing cats’ expressions — even those who reported they didn’t feel a strong attachment to cats, the large study found.

“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,” said Prof. Lee Niel, who led the study with Prof. Georgia Mason, both from U of G’s Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare.

The only research so far on readings cats’ faces has focused on expressions of pain.

“This study is the first to look at the assessment of a wider range of negative emotional states in animals, including fear and frustration, as well as positive emotional states,” said Mason.

Published recently in the November issue of Animal Welfare, the study recruited more than 6,300 people from 85 countries who were asked to watch 20 short online videos of cats from a collection of 40 videos, gleaned mostly from YouTube, and complete online questionnaires.

The videos showed cats experiencing either positive emotional states (situations the cats had sought out, such as being petted or given treats), or in negative states (such as experiencing health problems or being in situations that made them retreat or flee).

Each video was focused on the cat’s face -its eyes, muzzle and mouth. None of the cats showed expressions of fear, such as bared fangs or flattened ears, since these facial expressions are already widely understood.

Participants were asked to judge whether each cat was in a positive state, a negative one, or if they weren’t sure.

Most participants found the test challenging. Their average score was 12 out of 20 — somewhat above chance. But 13 percent of the participants performed very well, correctly scoring 15 or better — a group the researchers informally called “the cat whisperers.”

These people were more likely to be women than men, and more likely to be veterinarians or vet technicians. Younger adults also generally scored better than older adults.

“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,” said Mason, who worked on the study along with post-doctoral researchers Jenna Cheal and Lauren Dawson.

Participants were asked to judge whether each cat was in a positive state, a negative one, or if they weren’t sure.

Surprisingly, being a cat lover made no difference at all, since reporting a strong attachment to cats did not necessarily result in a higher score.

The finding that some people are skilled at reading cats’ faces suggests that others could be trained to do so as well.

“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.

To test your own cat-reading abilities, the research team has created a website with details.

Cats are lovely animals that make great companions.

Much like humans, they’re also capable of showing emotion through their faces. Whether you own a cat or are a cat sitter, it’s vital that you take some time to learn about a cat’s facial expressions and body language.

It will give you a better understanding of when you can approach a cat and when it’s best to leave them alone.

Relaxed and happy cat facial expression

If your cat’s face isn’t particularly showing any emotion then it’s likely that they’re just relaxed, calm and comfortable. They’ve grown used to their environment and are probably lazing around either stretched out or curled up in a ball.

Typical signs of a relaxed cat:

  • Ears are relaxed and facing forward, they are soft and rounded.
  • Eyes are shut/half closed with small pupils
  • Mouth is closed
  • Whiskers are relaxed on their face

It’s safe to stroke the kitty and enjoy a cuddle together.

NOTE: A great bonding exercise,  is slowly blinking while looking at your cat. In cat language this means: I trust you soooo much, that I can close my eyes while you are there – I like you a lot.

Alert cat facial expression

Cats can appear cute, fluffy and adorable, but do keep in mind that their ancestors were excellent hunters that would stalk their prey and pounce when they noticed a moment of weakness. Cats can still don this alerted expression especially if there’s something unfamiliar that they’ve noticed. They’ll typically look more cautious with their feet in a position that is either ready to run away or pounce. They may tilt their head back, perk their ears up and sway their tail from side to side.

An alert cat with it's ears pricked forward and small pupils

Typical signs of an alert cat:

  • Ears pricked forward and pointed
  • Eyes open with small pupils
  • Mouth closed
  • Whiskers pointed forward

You can try and get the kitties attention, but you may find it difficult 🙂

A stressed cat’s facial expressions

Stressed felines tend to slump their ears and they’ll often tuck their legs in and lay down. They’ll seem a little alerted and they’ll typically avoid or ignore anything you do. A stressed cat may also exhibit aggressive behaviour, constant meowing or even show a lack of interest in you.

Typical signs of a stressed cat:

  • Flattened ears
  • Eyes open with wide pupils
  • Mouth closed, but may let out a hiss or two
  • Whiskers pointed forward

If you notice changes in your cats behaviour, it’s best to take them to the vet as soon as possible. If their health checks out, then you may want to consult a cat behaviourist for further advice.

A worried/anxious cat’s facial expression

As a survival instinct, cats are always on high alert. If they see something in their environment that worries them, they may crouch down and want to hide if possible.

A worried cat with ears pricked, with one to the side. Eyes open with wide pupils

Typical signs of a worried kitty:

  • Ears pricked, with one ear to the side
  • Eyes open with wide pupils
  • Mouth closed
  • Whiskers pointed forward

When a cat is worried, it won’t want to be touched. Would you want to be tickled while doing your tax return?

Depressed kitties facial expression

Did you know that cats can get depressed too? Although hard to diagnose, it’s often a result of prolonged stress. An unhappy cat will often sleep longer than usual, groom less and be uninterested in things they normally enjoy.

A depressed cat with ears drooping forward and eyes looking down

Typical signs of an unhappy kitty:

  • Ears forward but drooping
  • Eyes open but looking down
  • Mouth closed
  • Whiskers drooping

University of Guelph
Media Contacts:
Georgia Mason – University of Guelph
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Closed access
“Humans can identify cats’ affective states from subtle facial expressions”. Dawson, LC; Cheal, J; Niel, L; Mason, G.
Animal Welfare doi:0.7120/09627286.28.4.519.


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