Cats, known for their solitary tendencies, are not devoid of social connections. They form friendships with fellow cats in households or on the streets, with some feral cat colonies even comprising thousands of individuals. Lauren Scott, a medical student at the University of Kansas, sought to unravel the mysteries of how cats communicate with each other, moving beyond the common focus on aggression in previous research.
Scott, in collaboration with evolutionary psychologist Brittany Florkiewicz, embarked on an intriguing study at the CatCafé Lounge in 2021, where human visitors could interact with adoptable cats. They meticulously recorded 194 minutes of cats’ facial expressions aimed at other felines, identifying a remarkable 276 unique facial expressions. This number is not far from the 357 facial expressions exhibited by chimpanzees, challenging preconceived notions of cats’ expressive capabilities.
These expressions involve various facial movements, such as parted lips, jaw drops, pupil dilation or constriction, blinks, and ear positions. The majority of these expressions were categorised as either friendly (45 percent) or aggressive (37 percent), while a smaller portion (18 percent) fell into both categories, reflecting the ambiguity of some expressions.
The precise messages conveyed by these expressions remain somewhat enigmatic, but there are patterns. During friendly interactions, cats tend to move their ears and whiskers toward the other cat, while in unfriendly encounters, they move them away. Constricted pupils and lip-licking often accompany these rivalrous moments.
What’s intriguing is that some of the cats’ friendly expressions resemble those of people, dogs, monkeys, and other animals, hinting at the possibility of a shared “play face” across species.
While the study doesn’t directly compare these findings to wild felines, it’s noted that domestic cats, including their direct ancestor, the African wildcat, were solitary animals. Domestic cats might have retained some defensive communication, but they likely began to develop friendly facial expressions as they congregated around humans, possibly in anticipation of shared meals.
The research has garnered praise from experts in the field, with the potential to enhance the bond between cats and their human companions. In the future, it could lead to the development of apps helping cat owners interpret their pets’ subtle cues, improving understanding and communication. Moreover, it may assist prospective cat adopters in selecting feline companions that are more likely to harmonize with their existing pets.
The profound insights into feline facial expressions, while shedding light on the intricate world of cat communication, leave us with one intriguing question: do dogs also understand the meanings behind these catty expressions? This remains a mystery yet to be unravelled.