Cats have more facial expressions than we give them credit for

Caitlin Dempsey


A series of cats making different faces

Cat communication can be quite complex. Although some ways, like a cat meowing at you for food are easily understood. Other ways of communication can be more nuanced or complex. Cats use a variety of visual cues, body language, scents, and vocalizations to communicate with other cats, to people, and to other animals. The posture of the tail, the tilt of the eras, tension in the body, even the position of the fur are ways that cats communicate.

Facial expressions are more subtle, with cats using small changes in ear position, eye dilation, and whisker orientation to communicate. Lauren Scott, a medical student with the University of Kansas Medical Center, wanted to explore more in depth all the ways that cats use facial expressions to communicate to other cats. To do so, Scott visited a cat cafe in Los Angeles over the course of a year to record the interactions among cats. In total, 53 adult domestic shorthair cats and their interactions were studied.

A slightly dirty longhaired charcoal grey and white cat sits upright in the sun in front of a blurry yellow grained field.
Cats don’t just used sound to communicate. Cats will use a variety of facial expressions, ear position, and body language to communicate. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

How do cats make facial expressions?

The video of these feline interactions was then analyzed using Facial Action Coding Systems specialized for analyzing cat facial expressions. Scott collaborated with evolutionary psychologist Brittany Florkiewicz of Lyon College to categorize all the different movements of the cats’ facial muscles. The study excluded those movements that were associated with involuntary actions like breathing, chewing, yawning, and similar activities.

A black cat lying on a rope rug looking at the camera.
Some of the cat facial expressions recorded for the study were ambiguous. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Cats can use a variety of combinations involving the position of the lips, eyes, ears as well as the dilation of the pupils, drooling, and tension of the jaw. In total, there are 26 different facial movements that a cat can make. With each facial expression about four out of the 26 different facial movements, the researchers calculated that cats can make 276 unique facial expressions.

The researchers were able to categorize most of the cat facial expressions as either clearly friendly or aggressive. 45 percent of the facial expressions were deemed friendly and 37 percent were considered aggressive. About 18% of the cat facial expressions were ambiguous.

A young scared kitten, European Shorthair, arches his back and hissing, the cat has wild staring eyes, pinned-back ears and puffed up his fur.
Some facial expressions are easier to understand, like the fear response of this kitten. Photo: © kathomenden.

The study highlighted just how complex cat facial expressions can be. The authors of the studied hypothesized that domestication has probably influenced how cats use facial expressions to communicate with each other and humans.


Scott, L., & Florkiewicz, B. N. (2023). Feline Faces: Unraveling the Social Function of Domestic Cat Facial Signals. Behavioural Processes, 104959.

Lesté-Lasserre, C. (2023, October 25). Cats have nearly 300 facial expressions. Science.

Related in cat communication

Share this article:

Photo of author
About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey holds both a master's in Geography from UCLA and a Master of Library and Information Science. She is the editor of and an avid researcher of geography and feline topics. A lifelong cat owner, Caitlin currently has three rescued cats: an orange tabby, a gray tabby, and a black cat.