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Cats Have Nearly 300 Facial Expressions Including a Play Face

Researchers have revealed the hidden language of cat facial expressions. Credit. Lisa Zins / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

In a recent study, it was discovered that cats have an impressive range of facial expressions they use to convey feelings. The study, which took place over a year, involved the observation of fifty cats residing at a cat cafe in Los Angeles.

Researchers found a total of 276 different facial expressions that these cats have. These expressions could range from showing their playful side to displaying aggression and everything in between. The study was published in the journal Behavioural Processes.

This study marks one of the earliest investigations into how cats communicate, going beyond their typical sounds such as purring and meowing. It sheds light on the diverse ways our feline friends express themselves using their faces.

Facial expressions of various species

Facial expressions have been thoroughly examined in dogs, chimpanzees, and humans, revealing some interesting facts. Humans have forty-four different facial expressions, while canines have twenty-seven, and chimpanzees top the chart with a remarkable 357 expressions, as stated in a recent report.

Surprisingly, the field of cat expressiveness has seen very little research. According to Brittany Florkiewicz, an assistant professor of psychology at Lyon College in Arkansas and co-author of the study, the existing literature is quite limited, often concentrating on the connection between cats and humans throughout the ten thousand years of domestication.

However, the researchers at the cat cafe took a different approach. They focused on capturing the spontaneous interactions between cats and meticulously documented their facial expressions, shedding new light on how these enigmatic animals communicate.

Distinct expressions in cats

In the study, it was observed that each distinct expression in cats was formed by roughly combining four out of twenty-six unique facial movements. These included actions such as lip parting, pupils dilating or constricting, blinking, mouth corners curving, nose licking, and various ear positions.

One striking example from the study involved a pair of cats engaged in a rapid transformation of emotions. Initially playful, one of them suddenly crouched down and hissed at its littermate before swiftly making an escape.

This incident provided a clear illustration of how swiftly cats can shift from a friendly demeanor to a confrontational one, using their facial expressions to communicate their feelings.

The study brought to light some surprising moments, as observed by Florkiewicz, who remarked, “It was surprising to see them play-fighting, and then things escalated into an aggressive encounter.”

She further said, “You can see a change in their facial expressions. At first one cat’s eyes were more relaxed and its ears and whiskers were pushed forward, a movement to get closer to the other cat. But then things got ugly, and it moved its ears and whiskers backward—its demeanor changed pretty quickly.”

Upon analyzing the recorded interactions, the researchers found that a greater proportion of the cats’ expressions were friendly (45 percent) compared to aggressive (37 percent). Additionally, 18 percent of the expressions remained ambiguous or fell into both categories, emphasizing the diverse and often mixed ways in which cats communicate emotions.

Common play face

The researchers also made an intriguing discovery in terms of a specific facial expression they term the “common play face.” This is characterized by the corners of the mouth drawn back and the jaw dropping, and it communicates joy. It is strikingly similar among different species, including humans, dogs, and monkeys.

While further investigation is needed to fully comprehend the precise messages cats convey to each other, the study is promising in illuminating the wide array of expressions exhibited by a species often regarded as aloof.

Brittany Florkiewicz expressed hope that the study could be beneficial for animal shelters and humane societies in assessing the cats in their care. Moreover, the study has piqued the interest of companies seeking to create an app that allows people to record and decipher cats’ facial expressions. This could potentially lead to improved communication with our feline companions.

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