Are you good at telling what mood your cat is in? Or do you find yourself perplexed when trying to figure out what your fluffy friend is thinking?
Research from the University of Guelph has found that some people are skilled “cat whisperers” who excel at deciphering subtle differences in the faces of cats and their moods.
The large study found that women and those with veterinary experience (veterinarians or vet technicians), were particularly good at recognizing the expressions of cats. Younger adults also generally scored better than older adults. The findings that some people are outstanding at reading these subtle clues suggests it’s a skill more people can be trained to do.
The study and the human/cat bond:
“The ability to read animals’ facial expressions is critical to welfare assessment,” said Prof. Lee Niel, who led the study with Prof. Georgia Mason, both from University of Guelph’s Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare. “This is important to be able to do because it could help strengthen the bond between owners and cats, and so improve cat care and welfare.”
Using cat videos to test human skills:
The study looked at the assessment of a wide range of emotional states in animals, according to Mason.
Published in the November 2019 issue of Animal Welfare, the study 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, mostly from YouTube, and then 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 a 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.
Participants were asked to judge whether each cat was in a positive state, a negative one, or if they weren’t sure.
Most participants found the test challenging. The average score was 12 out of 20—somewhat above chance.
However, 13 percent of the participants performed very well, correctly scoring 15 or better—a group the researchers informally called “the cat whisperers.”
“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,” said Mason, who worked on the study along with post-doctoral researchers Jenna Cheal and Lauren Dawson.
Surprisingly, being a cat lover made no difference at all, since reporting a strong attachment to cats did not necessarily result in a higher score.
So, are you a cat whisperer?
The research team has created a website with details for testing your own cat-reading abilities. You can take their interactive quiz at this link: https://catdogwelfare.wixsite.com/catfaces/cat-faces-interactive-quiz
Note about my experience taking the quizzes at this site: I have had cats in my life since I was a kid, and I like to consider myself pretty good at reading the emotions of animals, so I was very interested to try out the quizzes. took the first quiz at their site (link in the paragraph above) and got a 100 out of 100. The quiz took about three minutes and involved identifying whether a cat was experiencing positive or negative emotions in very short clips being shown followed by an explanation of the answer. After that, I had the chance to move on to the more advanced quiz, which I did since I was feeling pretty darn confident in my cat-reading skills—some might even say I was a bit cocky. Then, I suddenly had the feeling of crashing and burning as I quickly got the first four in a row wrong on the second quiz, including misidentifying what looked to me to be a very happy cat (the cat was actually about to vomit up semi-digested food). I ended up with a 37.5 out of 100, which killed my high from the first quiz until I read that most people taking this quiz score correctly only 51% of the time. I will say, it was definitely an eye-opening experience and I certainly plan to keep a closer eye on my kitties’ expressions from now on, as, hopefully, I will learn a thing or two.
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