Cats have a reputation for being hard to read, but new research from the University of Guelph has found that some people are “cat whisperers” who excel at deciphering subtle differences in cats’ faces that reveal mood.

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, who led the study with Prof. Georgia Mason, both from the University of Guelph’s Campbell Centre for the Study of Animal Welfare.

The only research so far on readings cats’ faces has focused on expressions of 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,” said Mason.

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.

To test your own cat-reading abilities, the research team has created a website with details.

whisperer