Tips&TricksCats speak volumes with their expressions: science reveals 300 ways they communicate

Cats speak volumes with their expressions: science reveals 300 ways they communicate

Cat with a squinted eye
Cat with a squinted eye
Images source: © Getty Images | Geraint Rowland Photography
10:52 AM EST, December 19, 2023

Cats are truly remarkable animals. Notoriously independent, it can sometimes seem impossible to train or even tame them. They simply do what they want, when they want. This, of course, often results in some highly amusing antics, particularly during playtime.

A new study published on ScienceDirect reveals that cats' facial expressions are more than just amusing gestures – they're a form of communication. But what are our cats trying to tell us with these expressions? Let's dive a bit deeper into this fascinating study.

The versatility of cat expressions: capable of nearly 300 different expressions

Cats have been our companions for over 10,000 years. Despite this long history, there is surprisingly little scientific literature examining their behavior, particularly their facial expressions. This has changed thanks to recent research. "For years we assumed that cats are not particularly social animals when it comes to interacting with humans," says Daniel Millis, a veterinarian involved in the study.

The study's findings were astonishing, challenging our previous misconceptions about cats. They are more communicative than we previously thought, using an array of facial expressions to interact with us. The study found that cats are capable of 276 different facial expressions using 26 unique movements -- including blinking, mouth widening, eye narrowing, and ear twitching.

By comparison, dogs exhibit only 27 expressions and humans a mere 44. Among mammals, chimpanzees top the list with an impressive 357 different facial expressions.

Cats' means of communication: from playful antics to open hostility

The study was conducted in several locations, with significant data obtained from observations in a cat cafe. There, two initially playing cats caught the researchers' attention by suddenly starting to fight. "At first, they made eye contact, and their whiskers were pointed inwards. Moments later, both cats' ears and whiskers were angled backward just before they started to fight," explains researcher Brittany Florkiewicz.

Florkiewicz adds that more research is needed to interpret specific expressions. So far, it was found that roughly 45% of identified facial expressions could be deemed friendly, and 37% were considered aggressive. The remaining 18% were deemed too ambiguous to be classified within these categories.

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