Cat facial expressions are notoriously difficult to read for many people–and a new first of its kind study has scientifically demonstrated this fact. Researchers recruited more than 6,300 people from 85 countries and the results indicate that only 13 percent of participants accurately identified cat facial expressions.
While previous research has focused on expressions of pain, the current study is the first to look at the assessment of a wider range of negative emotional states in animals, including fear and frustration, as well as positive emotional states.
Researchers recruited more than 6,300 people from 85 countries who were asked to watch 20 short online videos of cats from a collection of 40 videos, gleaned mostly from YouTube, and complete online questionnaires.
The videos showed cats experiencing either positive emotional states (situations the cats had sought out, such as being petted or given treats), or in negative states (such as experiencing health problems or being in situations that made them retreat or flee). Each video was focused on the cat’s face -its eyes, muzzle and mouth. None of the cats showed expressions of fear, such as bared fangs or flattened ears, since these facial expressions are already widely understood.
Participants were asked to judge whether each cat was in a positive state, a negative one, or if they weren’t sure.
Study findings overview
Most participants found the test challenging. Their average score was 12 out of 20 — somewhat above chance. But 13 percent of the participants performed very well, correctly scoring 15 or better — a group the researchers informally called “the cat whisperers.”
These people were more likely to be women than men, and more likely to be veterinarians or vet technicians. Younger adults also generally scored better than older adults.
Surprisingly, being a cat lover made no difference at all, since reporting a strong attachment to cats did not necessarily result in a higher score.
The finding that some people are skilled at reading cats’ faces suggests that others could be trained to do so as well.
To test your own cat-reading abilities, the research team has created a website with details.
Journal Reference: LC Dawson, J Cheal, L Niel, G Mason. Humans can identify cats’ affective states from subtle facial expressions. Animal Welfare, 2019; 28 (4): 519 DOI: 10.7120/096272188.8.131.529 Source