Flat faces negatively impact cats’ ability to communicate

Most of us know that flat-faced cat and dog breeds have breathing difficulties, but research by Finka et al (2020) found that “exaggerated” features may make it more difficult for pets to communicate with us.

Facial expressions help owners understand whether or not their pet is in pain. However, the researchers found that the “neutral faces of several of the brachycephalic breeds (e.g. Exotic short hairs, Persians and particularly Scottish folds)” showed more pain associated features “compared to the neutral expressions of most other breeds”. In fact,”[i]n the case of Scottish folds, their neutral facial landmarks indicated greater pain-like features even compared to the DSH cats that were actually in pain.”

These findings are potentially relevant when facial expressions are used to identify pain, especially in flat-faced breeds. This research suggests that facial expressions of domestic shorthair cats cannot be confidently applied to flat-faced breeds.

“The ability of companion animals to readily solicit care from humans is obviously advantageous. However, it is possible that permanently vulnerable looking individuals might have a diminished capacity to clearly indicate when care is or is not required, as well as to display other information relevant to their actual state or intentions. Thus, if certain cat breeds are being selected to display “pain-like” features on their faces, these features may serve to solicit unwanted or inadequate attention from their caregivers.”

“More generally, such types of anthropocentric selection might lead to increased anthropomorphic tendencies. If, for example, the animal has the appearance of an expression which humans find relatable on some level, even if it is not necessarily reflective of that animals’ affective state, it may be used to attribute emotions or characteristics to them. For example, “grumpy cat” a cat made famous by her coverage on social media achieved her moniker due to her perceived “frowning” facial appearance. However, this was likely a result of a combination of her feline dwarfism and paedomorphic features, rather than an expression of her irritability.”

Do cats recognise emotions?

Amost every cat owner or cat lover I know will tell you that their cat knows how they are feeling. They know if you are happy or sad or angry. They are extra cuddly or sweet when you are feeling sad as if trying to comfort you.

It is difficult to say for certain that cats know how we feel and adjust their behaviour accordingly. However, research by Quaranta et al (2020) suggests that cats do indeed recognise happy and angry emotions in other cats as well as people. The also link audio recordings of angy or happy sounds to the correct visual representation of the emotion. When they heard angry sounds they looked longer and more intently at the face with an angry expression, of a cat or human. When they heard purring they looked at the picture of a cat with a content facial expression and when they heard a happy human voice they looked at the picture of the smiling human.

It also seems that the cats in this study showed more signs of feeling stressed when confronted with an angry human; however, this needs further research. If cats do indeed feel stressed when a person is angry then this indicates a functional understanding of anger in humans. It would mean that cats have learned that this emotion in humans may well have negative consequences for themselves and therefore they adjust their behaviour accordingly to avoid this.

What this study definitely shows is that cats have developed social skills that allow them to understand human emotional signals. This skill is important for domesticated cats as it helps strengthen the bond with their owners.

Problem-solving ability and laterality in cats

I started teaching Dirk to give paw a few months ago and we have now progressed to one knock = right paw and two knocks = left paw. Of course he makes mistakes occasionally, but overall he is pretty good at giving me the paw I’m asking for.

When I first started training Dirk I noticed he has a slight preference to use his left paw. He would always use that oe first and also uses it most frequently. He also uses his left paw most when playing with his puzzle feeders (though he does switch to right paw as well).

Intrigued by his paw preference I started looking into research about domestic cats and left- or right-pawedness and found a very interesting research paper on this topic. Obviously, food was involved in testing the cats as participation needs to be rewarding for them too 😉 However, even that could not convince all cats to participate as 3 out of 41 cats tested did not move a paw at all. Of the other 38 cats, 10 were right-pawed, 12 left-pawed and 16 were ambilateral: they showed no preference for either left or right paw.

The study showed that cats with a clear paw preference, either left or right, were better at solving the food puzzles than those cats that did not have a paw preference. The cats with a paw preference found their way to the food a lot quicker with fewer paw movements.

The researchers discovered that domecats actually preferred opening the food puzzles with their head rather than paw. Those that had a head preference opened fewer sections of the puzzle feeder than those with a paw preference. This means that cats that perfer to use their paws possibly have better motor skills and problem-solving skills than those that prefer using their heads. One possible explanation that some cats have a head preference may be related to domestication: we tend to feed our cats from bowls which does not require any motor skills from the cat.

Does it matter whether a cat is left-pawed or right-pawed, ambilateral or prefers to use their head? In a domestic cat probably not, but perhaps this research gets us one step closer to proving just how intelligent cats are 😉

Left-pawed or right-pawed, just stretch them all

Say my name, say my name: do cats recognise their names?

Cat owners or lovers would probably say that of course cats recognise their names. More sceptical people might wonder whether they really recognise their name or just respond to their owner’s voice.

Research by Atsuko Saito, Kazutaka Shinozuka, Yuki Ito and Toshikazu Hasegawa shows that cats do indeed recognise and respond to their names! Their study showed that cats respond to their name when said by their owner and also when said by a test person. Cats also distinguish between their name and other words, both by owners and test persons.

Cats can learn a variety of words: they form associative meaning between words and things. As owners, we often say “treat” and find the cat comes running: they have learned that this word means they’ll get some tasty food. They can learn other words too: I often ask Dirk if he wants to cuddle. He has learned that when I say cuddle he will get a lot of strokes and fuss so depending on his mood he’ll come over. Another word he knows is “coffee”, although his association of the word is not with the drink, but with time to sit in my lap 😉

Did you just say coffee?

Cats’ personalities: do they become like their owners?

I think most of you are familiar with pictures joking about the physical similarities between owners and their pets. Do pets start to look like their owners or did the owner choose a pet that looks like them?
The more interesting question is whether owners’ and pets’ characters are similar. Research suggests cats and owners strongly influence each other’s behaviour, especially if the cat lives indoor only and if the owner is a woman!

The study also showed that cats remember when they are treated kindly and this directly affects how they react to their owners’ wishes. Cats were more likely to respond to their owner’s request for affection when that person had taken care of their needs in the past.

“A relationship between a cat and a human can involve mutual attraction, personality compatibility, ease of interaction, play, affection and social support,” said co-author Dorothy Gracey of the University of Vienna. “A human and a cat mutually develop complex ritualized interactions that show substantial mutual understanding of each other’s inclinations and preferences.”

While cats have plenty of male admirers, and vice versa, this study and others reveal that women tend to interact with their cats… more than men do.

“In response, the cats approach female owners more frequently, and initiate contact more frequently (such as jumping on laps) than they do with male owners,” co-author Manuela Wedl of the University of Vienna told Discovery News, adding that “female owners have more intense relationships with their cats than do male owners.”

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