Are you a ‘cat whisperer?’ Study finds select few can read felines’ faces

GUELPH, Ontario — Cats are complicated animals. While dogs are relatively easy to figure out, forming a relationship with a cat usually takes a whole lot more time and patience. On that note, cats’ facial expressions can be very hard to interpret. Well, at least for most people. A new study conducted at the University of Guelph finds that certain people are more adept at understanding the emotions and moods cats convey in their faces.

While some appear to be born with these “cat-whispering” skills, the study also found that it is quite possible for people to develop feline face reading abilities over time. Interestingly, liking or enjoying the company of cats doesn’t seem to be a requirement either, as many study participants who displayed heightened cat reading skills reported not being particularly fond of felines in the first place.

Overall, both women and individuals with at least some veterinary training were found to be the most likely demographics to excel at interpreting cats’ facial expressions.

“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,” says study leader Professor Lee Niel in a release.

Up until now, the only research that had been done on cats’ faces focused primarily on expressions conveying pain.

“This study is the first to look at the assessment of a wider range of negative emotional states in animals, including fear and frustration, as well as positive emotional states,” comments co-author Professor Georgia Mason.

The research encompassed over 6,300 people spread across 85 different countries. Each participant was asked to watch 20 short online videos of cats expressing a variety of different emotions spread across various scenarios. For example, one video showed a cat being played with, while another showed a cat experiencing a stressful situation. However, the participants couldn’t actually see what was happening to the cats in the videos, as each piece of footage was zoomed in so that viewers could only see the felines’ faces.

After watching each video, the participants were asked to indicate if each cat was in a positive state, a negative state, or they could also choose a “I’m not sure” option. Additionally, each person filled out an online survey.

Universally, the task was a difficult one for the participants. The average score among study subjects was 12 correct answers out of 20, but 13% actually excelled at the test, answering at least 15 questions correctly. It was this group that the study’s authors dubbed “cat whisperers.”

Besides women and veterinarians or vet technicians, younger adults also tended to score higher than older participants.

“The fact that women generally scored better than men is consistent with previous research that has shown that women appear to be better at decoding non-verbal displays of emotion, both in humans and dogs,” Professor Mason adds.

Finally, in a bit of bad news for all you cat lovers, having a fondness for cats did not seem to result in a higher score.

If you would like to try out your own cat whispering skills, you can take a quiz put together by the research team here.

The study is published in the scientific journal Animal Welfare.

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