I Asked a Scientist to Explain What the Hell My Cat Wants From Me

I just want to love him.

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Apr 24 2017, 10:00am

Merlijn Hoek/Flickr

As a newly-minted single father (of a handsome cat named Mizue), I've had to deal with all of the challenges that come along with raising a kitten. For example, wondering almost constantly: what in the fuck do you want from me?

Seriously. What. Do. You. Want. My beautiful boy's saucer eyes glimmer as he looks up at me and a "come hither" meow liltingly falls from his lips—it's hella petting time, or so I think. But when I go in for the pet, ever so gently, he strikes me across the hand. Why have you done me so very dirty, my son?

We need a little help communicating. So, I called Lauren Dawson, a postdoctoral researcher at Guelph University who's trying to figure out what a cat's facial expressions mean, and how humans and cats can get along. As it turns out, I'm not the only one who doesn't know what my cat's facial expressions mean—neither do scientists.

"We're more or less starting from scratch, to put it bluntly," Dawson said over the phone. "Every cat owner will say that their cat has different expressions in different situations, but it's not a heavily researched area."

Read More: Cats Are Actually Nice, Scientists Find

Thankfully, Dawson and her colleagues at the University of Guelph just launched an experiment to lay the groundwork for understanding cat expressions. An online survey (which you can take here) shows participants a bunch of cats, faces isolated, and asks them to guess the cat's mood. The researchers don't have a baseline for feline facial expressions, so they're working backwards: every cat in the survey is either in an unambiguously positive or negative situation.

"If we see that people are able to distinguish between facial expressions in positive and negative situations, then there's more evidence to suggest we should investigate further," Dawson said.

But why are cats so understudied? They've been around forever, and they are beautiful and precious. Still, it seems like nobody's paying much attention. Another recent study from Oregon University looked at cats' preferences for socialization—and found that they prefer human interaction to food—simply because nobody had done it before, even though dogs had been similarly studied.

"There's a lot more research for dogs," Dawson said. "I don't have a good reason for that, but research for cats is often under-funded, and at the end of the day if you don't have money to do a study, it doesn't get done."

For the good of my relationship with my son, I'm glad that at least this one study is happening.

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