Do Cat’s Facial Expressions Help Them to get Adopted More Quickly?

This article first appeared in iCatCare:

For this Spotlight on Science (and for a few more over the coming months), we introduce one of our iCatCare Feline Wellbeing Panel members, cat welfare scientist Dr Lauren Finka who is kindly sharing her reviews of some of the most interesting feline science with us.

In this article, Lauren will be reviewing a really interesting piece of research which investigated whether people are influenced by cats’ facial expressions when looking to adopt a cat.

Over to Lauren….

Facial expressions are referred to as a form of ‘non-verbal communication’ and have been studied scientifically in both humans, and more recently in animals. Facial expressions may be particularly important for animals that don’t possess complex language skills like humans, but still need to communicate how they are feeling nonetheless. Scientists are now trying to understand exactly how facial expressions are linked to underlying emotions, and how these expressions are used during communication in a range of different animals.

The specific facial muscles involved in the creation of different expressions have been identified and documented in several species including orangutans, chimpanzees, horses, as well as domestic dogs and cats. When an animals’ expression changes, different codes relating to the underlying facial muscles responsible are noted, creating a sort of dynamic ‘muscle map’ of the face. This process is known as ‘Facial Action Coding’ and is a very valuable tool that provides a standardised way to describe the shape of the face, allowing for even the most subtle of facial movements to be recorded reliably.

So how much information do humans actually glean from the facial expressions of cats? Are cats able to use their faces to effectively communicate with us? And do cat’s facial expressions influence our adoption preferences? In this Spotlight on Science, I discuss a recent study that attempted to answer some of these questions by looking at people’s choices when adopting cats from homing centres.

Who conducted the study?

This study was carried out by Dr Catia Caeiro at the University of Lincoln, UK and her colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh, US and University of Portsmouth, UK.

Where did the study take place?

Data was collected from three different UK homing centres; the Isle of White Cats Protection (IWCP) and the RSPCA Southall and South Godstone branches. 

What did the study measure?

The study recorded the behaviour and facial expressions of 106 cats that were ready to be adopted across the three centres. The ages of cats ranged from 6 months to 14 years old and included 59 females and 47 males.  Cats had a range of coat and eye colours and were mostly of a domestic short hair breed. During the study, cats were filmed in their pens by an experimenter who stood at the front of the cat’s pen and recorded it for 2 minutes.  Whilst this might not seem like sufficient time to collect useful behavioural information for each cat, this duration was actually slightly longer than the average time adopters were reported to spend looking at cats (70 seconds) in a previous study. In reality, cats may have very little time to effectively sell themselves to members of the public. The researchers in this study therefore chose to observe the behaviour of the cats for a time period that mirrored that of potential adopters.

During these 2 minutes, the researchers recorded:

  • The facial expressions of the cats using the newly developed Facial Action Coding System for cats. This included recording the presence of 33 different facial expressions associated with the ears, mouth, eyes and whiskers.
  • 26 other behaviours displayed by cats including whether the cat approached the front of its pen, whether it vocalised (e.g. purred, meowed, hissed or growled), rubbed against the door of its pen, scratched objects, or kneaded with its paws.
  • The time taken for each cat to be adopted.

What were the main findings of the study?

Interestingly, none of the facial expressions displayed by cats influenced how quickly they were adopted. Additionally, only one of the other 26 behaviours recorded were linked to the cat’s length of stay in the centre. The study found that the greater the amount of times the cat rubbed against the door during the two-minute study period, the more quickly they were selected for adoption.

The study also indicated that male cats were adopted more quickly than female cats; their average length of stay was 33 days, whereas average female length of stay was 42 days. Surprisingly, none of the other characteristics of the cats such as their coat or eye colour influenced how quickly they were chosen.

Why is this information interesting?

The fact that none of the facial expressions displayed by cats were found to be related to their time to adoption is interesting, given that in a similar study conducted with domestic dogs, those that raised their brows more often were also adopted more quickly. The authors of the current study highlight the diverse range of facial expressions cats are able to make, but suggest several reasons why these expressions may be less likely to influence adopter preferences compared to dogs. Domestic dogs were domesticated from the social wolf. During their domestication, dogs’ faces were selected to look more ‘paedomorphic’ (e.g. retain younger or more juvenile looking characteristics such as large eyes and a smaller nose), features which are generally appealing to humans.  In contrast, the faces of cats (and the subsequent expressions they make) have probably not been altered to appeal to humans to the same extent. Additionally, because cats’ closest wild ancestors (the North African/Arabian wildcat) are primarily solitary, they probably have less need for complex ways to communicate facially (wildcats actually spend a lot of their time trying to avoid one another).

It’s therefore possible that adopters are paying less attention to the subtle facial expressions being made by cats but are instead focusing on the more obvious ‘friendly’ behaviours being displayed (such as rubbing for example).

What are the limitations of the study?

The study didn’t measure the cat’s behaviour or facial expressions when they were actually interacting with the adopter, even though these behaviours could be very different to those displayed by the cat when being filmed by the experimenter. Other variables which the study didn’t measure could also be very important in determining how quickly a cat is adopted. For example, the impression cattery staff give about a certain cat may encourage or discourage it from being chosen. Homing centres also tend to have different adoption policies which may affect whether a potential adopter is considered suitable to adopt a specific cat or not, irrespective of the adopter’s preferences.

Why is this study useful?

This study helps us to better understand the features of cats that may influence our preferences for them. The study found the sex of the cat but not their other physical characteristics influenced how quickly they were adopted, with male cats being more popular than females. How frequently cats rub on or around humans may also make them more or less attractive to us. The implications of this are that females and less outwardly friendly cats may end up spending longer in homing centres. The study also highlights the differences between cats and dogs in relation to their facial expressions. It suggests that whilst cat’s faces are certainly capable of making a range of different expressions, it’s still unclear whether they use the expressions to communicate with us, and how much attention we are actually paying to these expressions in the first place.

How can we better understand cats’ expressions?

If we understand cats and can interpret their behaviour correctly then we can potentially provide them with better individualised care. We need to pay close attention to the facial expressions displayed by cats in a range of different situations. When you think a cat is excited, happy and relaxed, frustrated, fearful, or potentially in pain, ask the following questions:

  • How are its ears positioned? Are they upright and pointed forwards, flattened, or folded backwards, also to what degree?
  • What shape are the eyes? Are they large and circular or almond shaped? Is there any tension around the eyes?
  • How are the whiskers positioned? Are they spread outwards or held back against the cheeks?
  • Does the cat’s nose and mouth area seem relaxed, or is there tension present? Is the nose wrinkled?

Noticing these differences will make you much more aware of how expressions change and what those changes may indicate about how a cat is feeling. Learn more about how cats communicate.

If you work with unowned cats in a homing centre environment and want to learn more about how to observe how well individual cats cope with confinement, then visit our Cat Friendly Homing section of our website, where we introduce the Traffic Light Assessment


Article reference:

Caeiro CC, Burrows AM, Waller BM. Development and application of CatFACS: Are human cat adopters influenced by cat facial expressions?. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 2017 Apr 1;189:66-78.

This piece is edited from an article first published in Your Cat magazine, written by Lauren. We are extremely grateful to both Lauren and Your Cat magazine for their generosity in allowing us to utilise and repurpose this article and helping us share cat science to improve the understanding of cats internationally.

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One thought on “Do Cat’s Facial Expressions Help Them to get Adopted More Quickly?

  1. cocosangel says:

    I remember when we went to pick up Coco in 2006, there were several other kittens, who were her sisters and brothers. My dughter picked up her brother who was grey colour, and Coco who was in another girl’s hand jumped on to my daughter’s neck and was screaming, like saying, “no no not my brother take me!” And that’s how she came to our lives.

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