Fe­line faces don’t be­tray their feel­ings, study says

Most people are pretty bad at dis­cern­ing a cat’s mood or ex­pres­sion

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY KARIN BRULLIARD [email protected]­post.com

We gen­er­ally as­sume a purring cat is a con­tented cat. It’s safe to say a hiss­ing cat, its ears drawn back, is not pleased.

But aside from the vis­age of Grumpy Cat — who may not have been grumpy at all — fe­line faces don’t tell us much about how cats feel. Or rather, as a new study on the topic found, most of us are pretty ter­ri­ble at read­ing cats’ ex­pres­sions.

Cats have a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing “in­scrutable,” the re­searchers say, and their re­sults mostly back up this no­tion. More than 6,000 study par­tic­i­pants in 85 coun­tries, the vast ma­jor­ity of them cat own­ers, watched brief cat videos and then judged the an­i­mals’ moods. The av­er­age score was just un­der 60 per­cent cor­rect — an F, if cat videos were a school sub­ject.

How­ever, 13 per­cent of par­tic­i­pants did quite well, scor­ing 75 per­cent or above. The re­searchers dubbed th­ese achiev­ers “cat whis­per­ers” — and said their re­sults are im­por­tant.

“Cats are telling us things with their faces, and if you’re re­ally skilled, you can spot it,” said au­thor Ge­or­gia Ma­son, a be­hav­ioral bi­ol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Guelph in On­tario. “Some people can do it — that means there’s some­thing there. That means that cats are hard to read” but not wholly in­scrutable, she said.

Women, who made up three­fourths of par­tic­i­pants, scored bet­ter than men, but not by much. Younger people did bet­ter than older people. But the most skilled di­vin­ers of fe­line feel­ings were people with pro­fes­sional ex­pe­ri­ence in­volv­ing cats, in­clud­ing vet­eri­nar­i­ans.

“They could be nat­u­rally bril­liant, and that’s why they be­come vet­eri­nar­i­ans,” Ma­son said. “But they also have a lot of op­por­tu­nity to learn, and they’ve got a lot of mo­ti­va­tion to learn, be­cause they’re con­stantly de­cid­ing: Is this cat bet­ter? Do we need to change the treat­ment? Does this cat need to go home? Is this cat about to take a chunk out of my throat?”

Sci­en­tists have long known that hu­mans greatly de­pend on smiles, eye­brow raises, fur­rowed brows and other fa­cial move­ments to judge how other people feel. Since a 2010 study on the gri­mace-like faces mice make when in pain, re­searchers have grown in­creas­ingly in­ter­ested in un­der­stand­ing an­i­mal ex­pres­sions, Ma­son said.

Sev­eral stud­ies have fo­cused on dogs. But Ma­son and her col­leagues lo­cated just one peer­re­viewed pa­per on the fa­cial ex­pres­sions of cats, de­spite their pop­u­lar­ity as pets. That study fo­cused on cats in pain.

“We wanted to know, ‘Okay, do they only have pain faces?’ It seems un­likely,” Ma­son said.

The sur­vey did not re­quire re­spon­dents to judge whether cats looked happy, de­pressed or des­per­ate for tuna, be­cause even the re­searchers couldn’t de­ter­mine that. “We’re not Dr. Dolit­tle,” Ma­son said.

In­stead, sur­vey-tak­ers had to de­cide whether close-ups of cat faces in short video clips — most from YouTube, some from vet­eri­nar­i­ans or re­searchers’ cats — showed “pos­i­tive” or “neg­a­tive” ex­pres­sions. Sounds and sur­round­ings were edited out.

Videos of cats ap­proach­ing some­one or get­ting some­thing they wanted, such as a treat, were clas­si­fied as pos­i­tive. Those show­ing cats in pain or flee­ing were deemed neg­a­tive. Easy videos — those hiss­ing cats — were ex­cluded. (So were any show­ing mat­ing, the au­thors write, “due to the af­fec­tively am­bigu­ous nature of fe­line mat­ing,” which can in­volve bit­ing by males and other painful el­e­ments.)

The use of YouTube videos “en­sures cats were be­hav­ing in cat-typ­i­cal ways and gives the conclusion­s a sense of real­ity, since th­ese are sit­u­a­tions and ex­pres­sions people may typ­i­cally en­counter with cats,” said Kristyn R. Vi­tale, who re­searches cat be­hav­ior and cog­ni­tion but was not in­volved in the study.

Vi­tale, who said she takes fa­cial ex­pres­sions into ac­count “all the time” when in­ter­act­ing with cats at her Ore­gon State Univer­sity lab, got a per­fect score on a short­ened online ver­sion of the new study’s sur­vey.

Ma­son and her col­leagues say the re­sults are valu­able be­cause people tend to be less bonded to cats than to dogs and treat them more ca­su­ally. Ev­i­dence that cats make ex­pres­sions that some people can de­tect could lead to tools that help pet own­ers and ve­teri­nary staff un­der­stand cats bet­ter, she said. Vi­tale echoed that.

The fairly poor re­sults, in­clud­ing from cat own­ers, “in­di­cates a large por­tion of people may ben­e­fit from ed­u­ca­tion in cat body lan­guage and fa­cial ex­pres­sion,” Vi­tale said.

Be­fore that hap­pens, Ma­son said, she would like to an­swer other questions. Such as: Just what are the kitties do­ing with their faces that cat whis­per­ers see — a slight eye­lid twitch? A sub­tle wi­den­ing of the eye?

“I think the cats re­ally have th­ese con­sis­tent fa­cial ex­pres­sions that prob­a­bly they’ve evolved,” Ma­son said. “People are re­li­ably see­ing some­thing that is true and valid. But what is it?”

ALESSAN­DRA TARANTINO/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Cats, like this Sph­ynx at a cat show last month in Rome, have a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing “in­scrutable,” the au­thors of a new study say, and fe­line faces don’t tell us much about how cats feel.

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