Cats, those inscrutable creatures. I distinctly remember being bitten by my friend’s cat Emmett when I was 10 after mistaking his growls for contented purrs at being pet. I later learned that he had a back injury, but I truly had no idea that he was signaling “ouch, stop” until it was too late.
In spite of this early childhood trauma, I really like cats. I just don’t understand them. But according to a new study, some people do—in fact, some people are experts at interpreting cats' facial expressions, even if they don't own or even like cats. Understanding what these rare superstars are noticing may help us normies better appreciate cats, and avoid accidentally angering them.
In the study, the results of which were published last month in the journal Animal Welfare, over 6,000 participants were tasked with identifying whether a series of fuzzy felines were feeling positive or negative based on short video clips of their facial expressions, sans context. On average, people identified the correct feeling in 11.85 of 20 clips—if you guessed the answer randomly, you would expect to score a 10.
There were exceptions to this overall abysmal performance, though. Fifteen percent of participants got 15 or more answers right, leading researchers to believe that cats really are trying to tell us things with their faces, but most of us aren’t picking up on the right cues.
“Anyone who writes cats off as sort of moody or distant is probably underestimating them,” said Georgia Mason, the senior author of the study. “The point is they are signaling, it's just subtle and you need expertise and maybe intuition to see it.”
So-called cat whisperers who aced the test were more likely to have veterinary experience, while owning and loving cats had no bearing on performance. To Mason, this suggests that individual cats may have their own facial cues that owners recognize, but people who interact with many cats may be able to pick up on general cues across the species. Women also scored slightly higher than men, and younger people did better than middle-aged folks.
In the name of science and investigative journalism, I took a quiz with eight video clips that were used in the study (the quiz wasn’t for research, just for fun). I guessed 7 out of 8 cat emotions correctly. Was I secretly a cat whisperer? I next took a more difficult quiz based off the study and scored a 3 out of 8, which is worse than random chance and means I am most likely not a cat whisperer. “Very few are!” responded Mason when I told her this over email.
Cats are notoriously understudied compared to dogs. According to Mason’s paper, at least 16 studies have looked into the emotional states of dogs, but only four have investigated cats’ feelings beyond obvious negative signals like hissing and hair raised on end.
Inspiration for the study also came in the forms of Luke and Sylvie, Mason’s two cats. When she and her husband are sent photos of the cats, they often guess similarly about how the cats are feeling. Most of the cat clips used in the study were sourced and cropped from YouTube or were sent in by veterinarians, but Luke and Sylvie also made guest appearances.
Mason said that she eventually wants to turn the research into a tool to help people bond with their cats, citing data that cat owners are less bonded to their pets than dog owners. She added that cats are more likely to be abandoned and not adopted from shelters, a symptom of this low attachment.
“We're hoping with more research to develop tools to help people read their cat better, and in turn that would make living with a cat more rewarding,” Mason said.