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Cats use nearly 300 facial expressions to communicate

Cats, often perceived as mysterious, inscrutable creatures, actually exhibit nearly 300 distinct facial expressions that they use to communicate with one another. Despite their sometimes aloof demeanor, the majority of these expressions are surprisingly amiable when directed towards other felines. 

This was the conclusion of a comprehensive new study conducted at a cat café, where researchers meticulously observed 53 domestic cats over a span of 10 months, documenting 186 distinct interactions between the animals.

Cat facial expressions 

In the study, the researchers managed to identify 126 expressions that were classified as friendly. Among these, the serene expression of closed eyes stood out. This is a gesture that many cat owners have come to recognize as a heartfelt sign of affection from their feline companions. 

Conversely, the study also cataloged 102 expressions that were deemed unfriendly. These included narrowed pupils and flattened ears – behaviors that cats exhibit towards humans as well when they are irritated or displeased.

Wide spectrum of expressions

Interestingly, the study revealed 48 facial expressions that were more ambiguous. These were akin to the enigmatic smile of the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland, as they could be interpreted as either friendly or unfriendly. 

This wide spectrum of facial expressions took the researchers by surprise. Cats, in comparison to dogs, who are known for their expressive faces that clearly depict emotions such as happiness or sadness, have faces that are relatively less mobile.

Social cues from cat facial expressions

“These findings show it is good to look at a cat’s ears, eyes, and whiskers to understand if they are feeling friendly,” explained senior author Brittany Florkiewicz, a comparative and evolutionary psychologist at Lyon College in Arkansas. 

“Their mouth provides a lot of information about whether a cat fight is likely. People may think that cats’ facial expressions are all about warning other cats and people off, but this shows just how social and tolerant pet cats can actually be.”

Playful gestures

The study, which has been published in the journal Behavioral Processes, meticulously categorized 276 types of facial expressions that cats direct towards other cats. 

Astonishingly, more than half of these expressions were indicative of a desire to engage in playful interactions. These playful gestures often involved the cat’s lips being pulled outward. This expression reveals the bottom teeth, along with an open mouth and a stretched jaw. Such playfulness was predominantly friendly in nature.

Potential conflict 

However, the researchers also pinpointed telltale signs that signify potential conflict between cats. These signs include four specific muscle movements manifesting in various facial expressions. 

To decipher these cues, one should look out for a cat licking its lips, ears positioned to the side of the head and flattened, and pupils that are narrowed. Notably, the last three of these behaviors have been observed in previous studies where cats exhibited discomfort around humans.

Initiating contact

It is hypothesized that cats, when bracing themselves for a potential skirmish or even preparing to take a swipe at a human, instinctively flatten their ears and narrow their pupils. This natural response serves to shield their head and eyes from possible harm. 

In contrast, the four muscle movements associated with friendly expressions identified in the study included closed eyes, ears moved closer and pushed forward, and forward-facing whiskers. These expressions might be a precursor to a cat initiating contact, such as rubbing against another cat or exploring them with a curious sniff.

By analyzing the context of the interactions, such as whether the cats ended up engaging in gentle contact or resorting to hissing and retreat, the researchers were able to discern friendly from unfriendly expressions. 

What cat facial expressions tell us 

This study not only sheds light on the complex world of feline communication but also holds the potential to enhance cat owners’ understanding of their pets’ behavior, helping them recognize when their cats might be in need of some solitude.

In a fascinating comparison, the study highlighted that cats possess 26 unique facial movements that contribute to their wide array of expressions. In contrast, dogs exhibit 27 distinct facial movements, while humans display 44. This quantification underscores the richness and complexity of feline communication, revealing that there is much more to cats’ facial expressions than meets the eye.

More about cat communication

Cats communicate in a variety of ways. Their language is composed of a complex mix of vocalizations, body postures, and behaviors that convey their emotions and desires. Understanding these signals can greatly enhance the bond between cats and their humans.

Vocal: More than just meows

Cats use a wide range of sounds to express themselves. Each vocalization can have multiple meanings depending on the context.

Meows: A cat’s primary speech

Meows are the most recognizable cat sounds. Kittens meow to get the attention of their mothers, but adult cats typically reserve these sounds for communicating with humans. The tone, pitch, and frequency of meows can indicate whether a cat is greeting you, hungry, or in need of attention or help.

Purrs: Signs of contentment or pain

Purring is often a sign of a content and relaxed cat, but it’s not always that straightforward. Cats also purr when they’re frightened or in pain, using it as a self-soothing mechanism.

Hisses and growls: Warning signals

A hissing or growling cat is clearly stating that it feels threatened or is experiencing anger. These sounds are a cat’s way of saying “back off” before it resorts to physical aggression.

Body language: Silent signals

Cats also “speak” through their posture, movements. Most importantly, as discussed previously, facial expressions play a large role in cat communications.

Tail Talk

A cat’s tail is a barometer of its mood. A straight-up tail indicates a confident, happy cat, while a puffed-up tail suggests fear or aggression. A tail wrapped around the body might indicate insecurity or discomfort.

The Eyes Have It

A cat’s eyes are expressive. Slow blinking can be a sign of trust and affection, akin to a cat “kiss.” In contrast, dilated pupils could mean a cat is scared, excited, or stimulated.

Ear Positions

The positioning of a cat’s ears is a good indicator of their mood or focus. Ears that are forward show curiosity or pleasure, while ears that are flattened against the head signal fear or aggression.

Scent Marking: Leaving a Personal Stamp

Cats have scent glands on their cheeks, paws, and the base of their tails. They rub these areas against objects, people, or other animals to mark their territory or to leave a familiar scent, which is comforting to them.

Cheek Rubbing

When a cat rubs its cheek against you or furniture, it’s marking its territory with pheromones and claiming you as part of its trusted circle.


Cats scratch surfaces not only to keep their claws sharp but also to leave visual and scent markers that signal their presence to other cats.

Behavioral cues: Actions speak louder than words

A cat’s behavior can convey a lot about what they’re thinking or feeling.


Kneading, sometimes referred to as “making biscuits,” is a behavior cats carry from kittenhood. It’s a sign of contentment and may also mark their scent on their favored spots or people.

Bringing Gifts

Cats are natural hunters, and when they bring you “gifts,” such as toys or even prey, it’s a sign of affection and perhaps a teaching instinct coming to the fore.

Playfulness and aggression

Play is important for a cat’s physical and mental health. When a cat is playing, it’s communicating joy and pleasure. However, when play turns to aggression, it’s a clear signal that a cat needs more space.

Understanding cat communication is essential for a harmonious relationship with our feline friends. By paying attention to their vocalizations, body language, and behaviors, we can gain insight into their needs and emotions, allowing us to respond more empathetically to our beloved companions.

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