Cats can make faces: At least 276 of them, according to this adorable research

Working at California’s CatCafe, scientists observed cats interacting with other cats. It turns out they’re very expressive animals

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A new study of house cats has found that domestic felines, so often seen as placid and inscrutable, have a whopping 276 unique facial expressions (at least!) that they use to communicate with other cats.

Lead authors Lauren Scott of the University of Kansas Medical Center, and Brittany N. Florkiewicz in the Department of Psychology at Lyon College in Arkansas, published their research in the journal ScienceDirect under the title “Feline Faces: Unraveling the Social Function of Domestic Cat Face Signals.”

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In one of the cozier corners of fieldwork, they gathered their data at the CatCafe Lounge, a Los Angeles cat rescue and adoption centre that also serves hot and cold coffee and tea.

Over a 10-month period, they studied 53 adult domestic shorthair cats, 27 females and 26 males, all of them spayed or neutered, in both the centre’s indoor lounge and its outdoor “catio” space.

It wasn’t all lattes and head scratches, mind you. First the researchers needed to become certified in CatFACS, a domestic-cat-specific Facial Action Coding System that would allow them to identify each of a cat’s 26 facial muscle movements, some of them common to humans — blink, lips part — others wholly feline, such as ear flattener or whisker retractor. (Not sure if any humans can do “nose lick.” This one can’t.)

An interesting aside is that there are eight AnimalFACS systems, including ChimpFACS, GibbonFACS, MaqFACS (for rhesus macaques) and EquiFACS, for horses. Dogs, it turns out, have 27 facial muscle movements, one more than cats. (Pretty certain that extra one is “eyebrows.”) Humans have 44.

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Scott and Florkiewicz predicted that cats would have more complex facial expressions for “affiliative” or friendly encounters than they would for non-affiliative (watchful, defensive or aggressive) behaviour, which the research did not bear out. However, their second prediction, that affiliative and non-affiliative encounters would use widely different expressions, was proven correct.

In all, they recorded 276 distinct combinations of muscle movements. Of those, 126 were used in affiliative contexts, and 102 in non-affiliative contexts. The remaining 48 were observed in both types of encounters.

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The researchers were keen to study cat-to-cat interactions, they said in the paper, because “most current research on domesticated cats has focused on facial signals elicited through emotional arousal or human-cat interactions.” It’s also refreshing to see cat-based research that doesn’t involve quantum super-positioning of a dead cat and a live cat in a box, or else tying buttered bread to their backs to see if they still land feet first.

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By comparing their findings with earlier research on cat-humans facial signals, the scientists found some cat-to-person looks seemed to have a different meaning when delivered cat-to-cat. In particular, of nine non-affiliative looks cats use on humans, only three were consistently negative when applied to other cats, based on their behaviour at the time.

“One explanation for these observed differences is that cats use modified facial signalling repertoires when interacting with humans,” they wrote. “Support for this idea comes from previous work on cat vocalizations. Cats vocalize more frequently to humans than other cats … and their vocalizations are also higher in pitch when directed at humans.” In other words, cats talk to humans in the same sing-song way we often talk to them.

In an interview with the Post, Florkiewicz said the research had a personal effect on her.

“I used to be a dog person, but last year I adopted a cat who stole my heart,” she said. “My co-author doesn’t have a cat but wants to adopt one soon. Working at the CatCafe was such an amazing and unique experience. It is a rare opportunity to observe so many cat interactions happening simultaneously.”

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Her cat, Charmander, will soon have company, as Florkiewicz is adopting a six-week-old kitten named Vader this Friday.

“Our study is useful for cat owners such as myself who want to adopt two or more cats,” she said. “When I bring Vader home, I will be using the knowledge I gained from our study to evaluate his comfort and relationship with my other cat.” She’s hoping to eventually add a third feline, tentatively named Ahsoka.

As to the astonishing number of expressions cats can make, Florkiewicz feels it’s probably low compared to primates like us, lack of whiskers notwithstanding.

“We don’t have a number of facial expressions for humans yet,” she said. “It is probably a lot more than 276. But that is something our lab is working on.”

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