Most of us completely suck at deciphering our cats’ facial expressions, according to a new study.
That might come as a surprise to some because it’s often claimed cats don’t have facial expressions, or they can’t be read. They do, and they can.
The researchers from Ontario’s University of Guelph used a series of short clips selected from YouTube cat videos. They stripped all the context and blacked out everything but each cat’s face so participants wouldn’t be able to read body language or identify what the cats were doing.
The people who participated in the study — more than 6,000 in all — had only the faces to go on, and they were asked to assess whether each cat’s facial expression was positive or negative.
It turns out reading feline facial expressions is especially difficult: On average, participants got only 11.85 out of 20 questions right. That’s less than 60 percent.
Here’s the crazy part: Researchers found cat owners were no better at interpreting cat expressions than random people. Veterinarians scored the highest, a result that makes perfect sense.
Less than 15 percent of people are “cat whisperers,” study author Georgia Mason said, and can correctly interpret a cat’s mood based on the face alone.
“Anyone who writes cats off as sort of moody or distant is probably underestimating them,” Mason said. “The point is they are signaling, it’s just subtle and you need expertise and maybe intuition to see it.”
If you’re wondering what the test looks like, you can take an abbreviated version of it online. Here’s my score:
I’m a cat whisperer! Okay, not really. I scored a lousy four out of eight in the advanced version of the test.
I’m accustomed to reading feline body language — whiskers, ears, tails and fur provide a wealth of information about a cat’s mood — and absent most of that information, I found it difficult to gauge based on their faces alone.
On the positive side, scientists say the lessons from these studies can be applied to our companion cats eventually.
“We’re hoping [to conduct] more research to develop tools to help people read their cat better,” Mason said. “That would make living with a cat more rewarding.”
Top photo credit: BBC Science Focus