Cats can make at least 276 facial expressions, study says

Brittany Florkiewicz has always been a dog person, but she was surprised by what she discovered when reviewing more than 100 hours of cat videos.

Florkiewicz, a psychology professor at an Arkansas college, spent her childhood running around her yard with her family’s German shepherds and Labrador retrievers. She believed dogs were friendlier and more expressive than cats, as many pet owners do.

That changed when she and a co-researcher began studying cats in 2021 to learn more about how they communicate and express themselves. After videotaping and reviewing felines’ facial expressions at a cat cafe for nearly a year, Florkiewicz debunked her lifelong belief.

The researchers found that cats displayed at least 276 different facial expressions, according to the study’s results, which published last month in the journal Behavioural Processes. Florkiewicz told The Washington Post that the findings show cats are more articulate and affectionate than previously thought.

As someone who “fell prey to the stereotype of, ‘Oh, cats are aloof, they don’t really express themselves as much as dogs,’ the study was very enlightening,” said Florkiewicz, who teaches at Lyon College in Batesville, Ark.

Florkiewicz and co-researcher Lauren Scott were studying anthropology at UCLA in 2020 when they decided to research cats. Florkiewicz had been analyzing facial expressions in chimpanzees and other primates, but she said there had not been much research on the expressions that cats give each other.

About once a week starting in August 2021, Florkiewicz and Scott filmed cats for a few hours at the CatCafe Lounge in Los Angeles. The cafe housed about 30 cats that were up for adoption. Employees arranged a room and a patio for the cats to roam around that included food, water, litter boxes, scratching posts, wooden perches and toys. Some cats were adopted over the next 10 months, and new ones started living at the cafe during that time, allowing researchers to observe 53 cats total.

By June 2022, the two had recorded 150 hours of cat interactions using a Panasonic camcorder. Over the next four months, Florkiewicz and Scott carefully reviewed the footage and documented the cats’ facial expressions.

They studied how the cats moved their ears, wrinkled their noses, parted their lips and licked their faces. They labeled each face either a friendly or an unfriendly expression.

When cats were happy or having fun, they typically moved their ears and whiskers forward and outward, and sometimes closed their eyes. Cats tended to make what were labeled as friendly expressions when they were grooming each other, resting next to one another, sniffing each other and rolling around and playing together.

When cats felt threatened or unhappy with another cat, they typically moved their ears backward and flattened them, licked their lips and constricted their pupils. Cats usually displayed those faces when biting, fleeing, growling, hissing, scratching, spitting, staring and swatting at each other.

Of the 276 facial expressions, researchers found that about 46 percent were friendly, nearly 37 percent were aggressive and roughly 17 percent were ambiguous. Cats opening their mouths, dropping their jaws, wrinkling their noses and blinking were behaviors seen in both friendly and aggressive faces.

“Cat communication is much more complex than we’ve previously assumed,” said Florkiewicz, 31.

Florkiewicz hopes that cat owners and shelters will use the study’s findings to understand how well their cats are getting along. She’s considering creating an app that would allow pet owners to record their cats’ interactions to determine what feelings they are expressing.

Florkiewicz is also using the research for her personal life. Last year, her husband encouraged her to adopt a cat, whom they named Char, based on the Pokémon character Charizard. On Friday, the couple adopted another cat named Darth Vader.

Florkiewicz didn’t expect the cats to greet each other, but when they met, Char pushed her ears and whiskers forward and sniffed Darth Vader — a sign she was trying to be welcoming. But when Darth Vader later tried to jump onto Char, Char hissed, bent her ears and narrowed her eyes — an indication she wasn’t ready to be Darth Vader’s new playmate.

As the cats learn to share her house, Florkiewicz plans to continue judging their moods by their facial expressions. She admits she now enjoys living with cats as much as dogs.

“In terms of that playful, exploratory behavior, can also provide that to you,” she said.

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