Why is your cat so judgmental? Sure, you’ve been lounging on the couch stuffing your face and binging on Netflix for like seven hours. But still. A animal who uses their tongue to shower doesn’t get to judge us, right? Nevertheless, our cats seem to direct a thick layer of skepticism and condescension toward us, even though we prepare their meals, clean their litter boxes, and buy them toys filled with catnip.
So, why does Sprinkles McFluffington appear to be methodically plotting your death with the fury of a thousand ninja warriors?
Part of it has to do with how we perceive facial expressions. From a young age, we as humans learn to identify faces, human or otherwise. Just by looking at someone’s face, we can perceive complex and subtle emotions, as well as age, health, and gender, and we use this information to interact with those around us socially. What naturally follows is that when a cat is staring us down with its ears backward, chin down, and eyes narrowed, we see what looks like the very definition of rage on a face and we perceive it as such.
But how do we recognize faces? Can cats even make facial expressions? What do these expressions mean across different species?
Let’s start by delving into how we, as humans, identify a face.
Our ability to discern emotion from facial expressions is so important to our successful development as social beings that we consider the inability to recognize faces a disorder, which we call prosopagnosia. Studying people with this disorder has led scientists to understand how our brains recognize faces. Connecting the inability to identify faces with the damaged brain areas in prosopagnosia has provided insight about which parts of the brain normally help us with this task. We now know that we have a specific group of neurons (in the fusiform gyrus (Fusiform Face Area), amygdala, and occipital face area,) that endows us with the ability to identify faces – human or otherwise. These brain areas activate when you look at your cat, thereby recognizing that Sprinkles McFluffington has a face. From there, you will automatically search that face for signs of emotion to guide your interactions.
All we need are a few key features, and we deem the shape we see to be a face. Think of a pre-emoji smiley face – two eyes, a nose, and a mouth – all sideways. It’s not complex, and it’s not even in the right orientation, but nonetheless, we all know it’s a face. What’s even more remarkable is not just that we can recognize a face, but that we can recognize several individual faces – it’s how we recognize our friends, enemies, and family.
But can cats identify faces the same way we can?
Have you ever wondered how your cat knows to look at your eyes when you speak to them? Do cats also have that special part of the brain that recognizes faces – even faces of other species? Cats possess a temporal lobe, which is the part of the brain that contains the fusiform face area and helps us recognize faces. However, theirs isn’t quite the same as ours. Researchers are still working out which parts of human and non-human brains may share similar functions even if the structures look different. Still, cats seem know your face is a face, so they pay attention, and they seem know your face belongs to you, the specific human who feeds them. This anecdotal observation from keeping cats as pets inspires curiosity and pushes scientists to keep searching for an analogous face-recognition area in non-humans. The answer to how a cat recognizes your face is just past the outer limit of our knowledge, but we hope that with a little more research, we will get there.
Which animals make facial expressions? Can cats smile?
Sprinkles McFluffington might look like she’s out to get you, but she isn’t; it’s just her face. As it turns out, cats don’t intentionally make complex facial expressions. So let’s call Sprinkles’ death glare her resting cat face. In fact, except for primates, cats neither make facial expressions nor derive emotional context from them like we do. Non-primates do move the muscles in their faces, but not with nearly as much nuance as humans do with their faces, and not with the same connection to emotional communication. Non-primates like cats instead rely on body language and other methods to communicate.
A primate is a category of animal that includes us, monkeys, and lemurs. Primates are generally distinguished as having finger and toe nails, large brains, and opposable thumbs. By contrast, a non-primate, is any other animal – including cats.
A cat may move their ears when they want to hear better, pay attention to something, or monitor something going on behind them. Their ears flatten against their head if they’re scared or feeling threatened. Their faces may look less tense when they’re relaxed. They’ll close their eyes slowly in front of you if they trust you. But do they smile? No.
How do facial expressions differ across species?
As humans, we interpret facial expressions according to our anthropocentric world view. When the corners of someone’s mouth tilts upward and shows their teeth in a smile, we begin to think that person is happy, excited, and generally emitting positive vibes. The corners of a cat’s mouth sometimes appear to be curled upward, but that’s actually just the natural shape of their mouth. If a cat intentionally exposes their teeth, it’s a warning to back-off, and is usually accompanied by a growl – the opposite of what we communicate with a smile.
By now, we’ve all heard of Instagram superstar, Grumpy Cat, who passed away in May 2019. Famous for her frowny little face, the feline sold merchandise and boasted over 2.4 million followers. As we just discussed though, cats do not convey emotions through facial expressions such as a frown. Indeed, according to her humans, Grumpy Cat was actually quite happy and friendly, and not a grumpster at all. Her mouth just happened to curve downward in the shape of what we perceive as a frown.
Long story short – Your cat (probably) isn’t plotting your demise; it’s just their resting cat face. No offense. This doesn’t take away from the fact that Sprinkles McFluffington is your precious little angel.
As long as you treat your cat well and with respect, they’ll likely feel bonded to you…or at least appreciate you as a food and treat dispensary. Cats, just like any smart animal, have wonderful and complicated personalities. You just have to adjust your mindset a bit to get to know them since their body language is different from ours. On the plus side, a cat who looks like they’re judging you probably isn’t. A human on the other hand…well, our judgments are thinly veiled, if at all. Go adopt a cat.
Dana Simmons, PhD, is the Co-Editor-in-Chief of Science Unsealed. She is a medical writer and is always curious about what’s going on in her cat’s little brain. See Dana’s neuron art at Dana-Simmons.com, and follow her on Twitter @dhsimmons1.