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Cat’s expressions can be hard to read, except for ‘cat whisperers’, new U of G study finds

Photo of  a cat (IStock credit_CHUYN)A new study from the University of Guelph has found some people excel at deciphering subtle differences in cats’ faces that reveal their mood.

Cats can be hard to read, but the study found that women and those with veterinary experience were particularly good at recognizing cats’ expressions — even those who reported they didn’t feel a strong attachment to cats.

“The ability to read animals’ facial expressions is critical to welfare assessment. Our finding that some people are outstanding at reading these subtle clues suggests it’s a skill more people can be trained to do,” said Prof. Lee Niel, in the Ontario Veterinary College’s Department of Population Medicine, who led the study with Prof. Georgia Mason, Department of Animal Biosciences, Ontario Agricultural College. Both professors are with U of G’s Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare. They worked on the study with post-doctoral researchers Jenna Cheal and Lauren Dawson.

The study, published in the November 2019 issue of Animal Welfare, recruited more than 6,300 people from 85 countries who were asked to watch 20 short online videos of cats from a collection of 40 videos, gleaned mostly from YouTube, and complete online questionnaires.

The videos showed cats experiencing either positive emotional states (situations the cats had sought out, such as being petted or given treats), or in negative states (such as experiencing health problems or being in situations that made them retreat or flee). Each video was focused on the cat’s face –its eyes, muzzle and mouth. None of the cats showed expressions of fear, such as bared fangs or flattened ears, since these facial expressions are already widely understood.

Most participants found the test challenging but 13 percent of the participants performed very well, correctly scoring 15 or better — a group the researchers informally called “the cat whisperers.”

The research team has created a website  for those who would like to test their own cat-reading abilities.

Read the entire article on the University of Guelph website