Study Says Cats are Trying to Talk to you With Their Faces

Missing Cat

When the New York Post published the December 3, 2019 article by Hannah Sparks, cat lovers who answered her question, “Do you speak cat?” could have very well answered a resounding, “Yes!” Cat owners have long understood that cats are different than dogs. Cats can communicate with their owners very well; even though dog owners might disagree. Sparks was writing about a study conducted by veterinary researcher Georgia Mason. Along with her colleagues, Mason created a study which analyzed how well humans understand cats. The study was published by Universities Federation for Animal Welfare on Ingenta Connect.

There were 6,329 participants in the study. The participants were both male and female, young and old, and included cat owners, animal care staff, and veterinarians. Participants viewed 20 video clips of cats in various positive and negative states. The participants were asked to identify the cats’ different states. The participants scores averaged 11.85 out of a possible 20 correct. Though these scores are considered low, they were overall above chance.

A small group of 13% of the participants scored 15 out of 20 correct. Women scored higher than men. Younger participants scored higher than older ones. Those with professional veterinarian experience scored higher than those who owned pets. What was discovered by the study is that it is possible for people to infer whether cats feel positive or negative by looking at subtle changes in the cats’ facial expressions. Though it is challenging for most, some people are very good at reading cats’ faces.

Mason told Vice that cats have not been studied as much as dogs. She cited 16 studies about dogs’ emotions compare to just 4 studies about cats’ feelings. Mason was inspired to create her study by her cats Sylvie and Luke. It all started because she and her husband would share photos of the cats and have similar opinions about how they were feeling. Though Sylvie and Luke were included as cat actors in the study, the majority of video clips were sent by veterinarians or sourced from YouTube.

Mason hopes that the research will be used to help cats and people bond better. There is data to show that cat owners are not as closely bonded to their cats as dog owners are to their dogs. For this reason, cats are more often abandoned and less often, or not at all, adopted from shelters. Mason describes a cat’s attempts to talk to their human as subtle. She said that the humans who are best at understanding what a cat is trying to say requires a bit of expertise and perhaps some intuition. She told Vice that cats signal their humans. She also stated that it’s easy to underestimate cats as just being distant or moody. Cats have plenty of facial expressions to go along with their meows, purring and hissing. It just takes effort to interpret what they are saying.

According to the Library of Congress, scientists believe cats only meow to communicate with humans. They do not meow to communicate with other cats or animals. Scientists think that cats will meow to manipulate humans. Cats are expert at learning “which sounds will get their owners to do what they want them to do”. Nicholas Dodman argued this point at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in 2014. In 1895, Professor Alphonse Leon Grimaldi wrote an essay translating cat language into human language. His book, Pussy and Her Language is included in the Biodiversity Heritage Library in the History of Cats: 1858 -1922.  Professor Grimaldi’s book includes an essay with the same title. The book includes chapters about the “Power of Speech in the Feline”, “Cat Words in Common Use” and “Language of Divine Origin”. Apparently Professor Grimaldi’s writings may have inspired generations of believers in the ability cats have to communicate with humans.

According to Sandy Robins, one author of The Original Catfancy Cat Bible, if humans spend more time listening to and watching their cats, and inspecting their behavior patterns, the “easier it will be to understand what they are communicating”. Robins and colleagues also provided a handy list of tips for better sharing of emotions with cats. They recommend smiling at a cat by slowly blinking when looking directly at them. Cats are said to “take this as a loving gesture” and will respond in kind. Also recommended is to respond to meows by answering with a talk. It’s important to speak to cats with calm and soft voices because they are “sensitive” to tone of voice and will not “be very forgiving” when anyone shouts at them. It’s also recommended that owners avoid combining negative orders while using their name because it is confusing to them. Cats apparently do better when their owners use calm and happy words when calling them by name.

Understanding cat communication is so important that the ASPCA has published a webinar to help people understand what cats are saying to humans. The webinar is 51 minutes long and describes how cats speak to us with “their eyes, ears, whiskers and tails” and their bodies. The webinar was designed to help anyone who regularly handles cats to better understand the ways they use their bodies to communicate.

Swedish researcher and phonetics expert Susanne Schötz from Lund University in Sweden believes that cats use different dialects to communicate. Three researchers from Lund and Linköping universities are involved in a five-year project studying cat speech. They will use phonetic analysis to compare cat sounds from two distince dialect areas in Sweden. The researchers understand that cats exhibit a wide variety of melodies in their vocalizations, but humans do not easily interpret what cats mean.

The Swedish research adds to the slowly growing body of evidence that cats are trying to talk to us. Not only are they using their voices, but they are using their faces and their bodies. All researchers demonstrated the interest in helping cats while they are in shelters or animal hospitals. Taking it one step further, the researchers also believe in cats’ abilities to create positive relationships with humans. Cats are becoming companions in various places where pet therapy is valuable, including group homes, schools, and retirement homes. Understanding what a cat is trying to say with its face (and the rest of its body) is undeniably valuable in these circumstances.

The Swedish researchers posed the question, “Do you understand what your cat is trying to say?” They were referring to meows. But other researchers are delving deeper to understand all those subtle things your cat’s face is communicating. We think we’re coming closer to what a cat thinks. Are we ever going to understand what a cat is saying? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

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