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Summary of our findings so far...

Cats have a reputation for inscrutability. But our new research shows that cats in positive and negative emotional states can be told apart from just subtle facial expressions. Women, and people with veterinary experience, proved particularly good at doing this.


Animals’ facial expressions can be useful tools in welfare assessment, but research so far has focused on pain. Here, we looked at a wider range of negative states (e.g. fear; frustration), and at animals’ faces during positive states too: the first time anyone has tried this. We used videos of 40 cats (largely gleaned from Youtube) and online questionnaires that were completed by more than 6,300 people from 85 countries. Participants watched short videos featuring 20 cats who were either experiencing positive emotional states (since in situations the cats had sought out, like being petted or being given treats), or in negative states (e.g. experiencing health problems, or being in situations that made them retreat or flee). Each video focused on the cat’s face: its eyes, muzzle and mouth (and none showed extreme expressions of fear, such as bared teeth or flattened ears, since these are already well understood).


Participants were asked to say whether each cat was in a positive state, a negative one, or if they weren’t sure. Their average score was above chance, but only just: at 12 out of 20, most found the test challenging. But 13 percent of the participants were outstanding, correctly scoring 15 or better: a group we informally called “cat whisperers.” These people were more likely to be women than men, and likely to be veterinarians or vet technicians.  Younger adults also generally scored better than older adults; while surprisingly, being a cat lover made no difference at all. That women generally scored better than men is consistent with past research showing that women are good at decoding non-verbal displays of emotion. As for the cat-reading skills of veterinary staff, they often deal with dozens of cats a year and need to be well tuned in to the subtle signals of happy or unhappy animals so as to identify pain and sickness, and also to avoid being bitten or scratched.


Our findings thus indicate that cats, like humans, have different facial expressions when in different emotional states (including positive ones). They also suggest that people can be trained to read these: important because that could help strengthen the bond between owners and cats, and improve cat care and welfare. So, our next job is now to formally characterize these subtle feline facial expressions.


So, are YOU a "cat whisperer"? To test your cat-reading abilities, check out our interactive quiz here!

See this link for more information -

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