It's tough to tell how a cat is feeling just by watching its facial expressions. Can science be used to detect more subtle facial changes that reveal cats' emotions?
Are Cats More Expressive Than We Think?
Published: February 25, 2020
Narrator: Cats are famously enigmatic, so it’s tough to figure out what they’re feeling by looking at their faces: happy cat, angry cat, sad cat. Or is that the sad cat?
We may not be able to figure out what our cats are feeling, but can science shed any light on it?
Lauren Finka: Historically, cats aren’t seen as very expressive, so there is that idea that they are particularly cold when it comes to interacting with us.
Narrator: Compare that to a dog, whose face seems full of expression: empathy, happiness, sadness, guilt. Why aren’t cats as communicative?
Finka: They’re not really able to frown or have that sad, sort of, puppy dog eye expression. They don’t seem to have the right musculature for that.
Narrator: Both dogs and humans have a muscle that is responsible for raising the inner eyebrow, which we use for showing things like sadness and concern. Cats don’t have this muscle. So, cats are physically incapable of having faces as expressive as dogs.
However, Finka’s research suggests that cats can communicate some emotion on their faces. It’s just we don’t speak their language.
Finka: So, we know that the muscles of the cat’s face are quite different from other species and certainly from humans. They use muscles in different ways and they also have different types of muscles. And different collections of muscles will do different things.
Narrator: Finka studies how cats’ faces change when illness or injury produces pain. This is the only feeling she can currently say, with confidence, that a cat is experiencing.
Finka: We are looking at cats when they come into the vets with a painful condition. And we do know that they are actually changing their expressions in relation to how they’re feeling and if they’re in pain.
Narrator: She has identified a set of incredibly subtle markers to help track their feelings.
Finka: We have a series of 48 facial coordinates, and we can actually look to see how these coordinates are altering, based on what the cat’s experiencing. So, whether they’re in pain or not in pain, or whether they’re relaxed and comfortable or perhaps fearful or frustrated.
Narrator: Finka has identified some telltale signs, such as a cat’s ears turning very slightly outwards and down, or a tiny reduction in the distance between the cheeks, mouth and nose region. These are all signs that the cat is not happy and in pain. But if you think this is going to usher in a new age of cat–human communication, think again.
Finka: It’s very, very subtle. So, statistically it’s significant, but in terms of the average cat owner trying to look at their cat’s face, it might be a little bit more problematic.
Directed by: Pete Chinn
Edited by: Dan Macdonald, Zan Barberton
Digital Production: Angelica Coleman
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2020