Do Translations Of Cats Limited Their Ability To Communicate?

Does the failure of translation with your cat lead to a failure to communicate with him and a lack of understanding of his desires and requirements?

During the cat’s domestication, we’ve vastly altered their physical appearance, creating the various range of recent cat breeds that we all know today. What we haven’t done, however, is intentionally attempt to breed cats to enhance their social skills. The results of this are that whilst many of our pedigree pet cats might look tons different from their ancestors, they could not be all that dissimilar on the inside. While our cats are gifted with these great signal-at-a-distance capabilities, they haven’t necessarily inherited the power to speak complex messages when near others, for instance via their behavior and visual communication. And what if, instead of breeding cats to be better communicators, we’ve actually (unintentionally) done the other, by changing their looks in ways that make them even harder to ‘read’? 

Science has already made it clear to us the potential downsides of indulging in our desires to make what we concede to be the right-looking feline. Indeed, some cat breeds are far more likely to suffer from chronic health complaints, thanks to the precise genetic mutations they inherit, or just because the physical alterations to their bodies make normal activities far more difficult for them to perform. For instance, the cartilage abnormalities that give the Scottish fold their characteristic ‘folded’ ears also cause them to suffer from painful joint problems and arthritis. Additionally, the very flat, disproportionate faces of brachycephalic cats like the Exotic shorthair or modern Persian may cause issues with their eyes and breathing. cat care features a strong position when it involves breeding cats – no harm is completed – and for this reason, doesn’t condone breeds with physical features that impact negatively on their welfare. 

My recently published research has provided some initial evidence to suggest that these breed-related issues won’t only affect cats’ physical health, but also their ability to precise themselves and communicate via their face. Facial expressions are a crucial method of communication for several animal species. Such expressions are often wont to signal individuals’ intentions or underlying emotions. Even within the case of the usually stoic, domestic cat, research tells us that their facial expressions can indicate once they are in pain, fearful, frustrated, or comfortable. As owners and carers of cats, we’ll generally be very conscious of the various facial expressions our cats display. A number of us also will have an honest idea about how our cats or those in our care are feeling, or what they need, and support how their face looks at a given time. However, previous research suggests that generally, when humans are presented with the faces of unfamiliar cats, we will struggle to properly identify if the cats in question are during a positive or negative spirit. Interestingly, the research was limited to domestic shorthaired cats, so this task might become even harder when people are presented with cats that have very different looking faces, like the elongated face of the Oriental shorthair cat, or the flattened, condensed face of the Exotic shorthair, particularly where individuals have limited experience of cats with such face shapes. 

My recent study investigated how the countenance of cats has altered thanks to intense selective breeding, and therefore the impact this may need on their ability to display different facial expressions and emotions. 

The study was administered as a part of my research at Nottingham Trent University and involved several co-authors from Nottingham Trent University, UK, University of Lincoln, UK, and Sao Paulo State University in Brazil. The results were published in December 2020 within the open-access journal ‘Frontiers in veterinary science’. 

What did the study do?

For this study, I focused on the faces of cats across nineteen different common cat breeds including the Persian, Bengal, Norwegian forest cat, Egyptian Mau, Devon Rex, and Scottish fold to call a couple of. I obtained approximately 100 pictures for every breed, only selecting a picture if the cat seemed to have a ‘neutral’ countenance. This was so that once I compared face shapes across the breeds, I could identify differences in their appearance caused by selective breeding, instead of differences caused by a specific spirit they could be expressed at the time the image was taken. I then began the painstaking task of measuring their faces. To try to do this, I manually placed 48 dots on each image, each dot like the situation of underlying facial muscles. employing a special analytical technique called geometric morphometrics, I used to be then ready to quantify how the locations of those facial points changed across the neutral faces of cats from the various breeds. 

In theory, changes within the locations of those dots should indicate when the cat is displaying a specific countenance because we all know how each of the muscles the dots are linked to contracts and changes the form of the face during this process. However, because during this case, all the cats seemed to have ‘neutral’ expressions, if these dots showed significant differences in their locations across the various breeds, this tells us something quite important. What this can mean is that when different breeds do display different facial expressions, it’s unlikely that we might be ready to identify them, because there’s just too much variation within the general appearance of cats’ faces, even when no expressions are present. In other words, the expression on the cat’s face when experiencing fear or pain in one breed might look equivalent because the expression on a cat’s face once they are relaxed or content in another breed. 

To test this hypothesis, I conducted a second study where I measured the degree to which the countenance of every cat breed corresponded to features we all know are related to the expression of pain in domestic shorthaired cats (for example narrower ears positioned further apart, narrowed eyes and therefore the nose and mouth positioned closer together). I could then compare what proportion the faces of every breed seemed to show ‘pain-like expressions, compared to faces of domestic short-haired cats which were actually in pain (due to a routine neutering surgery). 

Where did all the photographs of cats come from? 

The photographs of the various cat breeds were from online sources like google. During this instance, watching pictures of cats on the web was my job for several months! 

I extracted the pictures of domestic shorthaired cats in pain from videos previously taken of a population of female cats during neutering at a veterinary clinic in Brazil. These cats were a part of a previous study to support the event of a composite acute pain assessment scale, aimed to assist veterinarians more accurately assess pain levels in cats and supply them with the proper amount of pain relief. All cats received pre-surgery analgesia then more pain relief post-surgery. The videos where cats were deemed to be ‘in pain’ were taken just before they received their second dose of analgesia 

What were the most findings of the study?

As predicted, all of the facial points that I measured varied significantly to support the breed of the cat. This highlights how selective breeding has altered cat’s faces in ways that might make communication and expression harder for individuals. 

Interestingly, the analyses also indicated that certain breeds had neutral faces containing ‘pain-like expressions, albeit they weren’t actually in pain (as far because it was possible to ascertain). This was particularly true for breeds with rounded, flattened faces (also mentioned as ‘brachycephalic’). These brachycephalic cats had greater pain-like expressions on their faces compared to breeds with more proportioned features (e.g. ‘mesocephalic’ faces) also as compared to breeds with elongated faces (e.g. ‘dolichocephalic’ faces). 

In the case of the (brachycephalic) Scottish fold, their neutral faces seemed to show more ‘ pain-like features, even compared to the population of domestic shorthaired cats that were actually in pain! 

 Why is that this study useful? 

This study helps to boost the important issue of how our selective breeding of cats won’t only impact negatively on their physical health, but also on their ability to express themselves and communicate. for instance, if the faces of certain breeds like the Scottish fold appear as if they’re permanently in pain, this might make it far more difficult for owners or vets to truly detect when pain is or isn’t present. during this case, it’s going to be far more useful to specialize in other aspects of the cat’s behavior and posture aside from their face. However, not only has selective breeding changed the looks of cats’ faces, but also the form of their general bodies and the length of their legs and tails. it’s therefore likely that differences in these features also will impact cats’ abilities to speak clearly. for instance, take the classic ‘Halloween cat’ posture (i.e. legs fully extended, a highly arched back, and enormous poofed-up tail) that cats display once they want to seem as big and threatening as possible. This posture could also be much easier for a well-proportioned domestic shorthaired cat to display, compared to a Munchkin cat with very short legs, or a Manx cat that doesn’t even have a tail. 

However, far more research is required to now attempt to understand how these general appearance differences across breeds might impact cats’ abilities to express themselves, also as our, and other cats’ ability to know them. 

What does this mean on behalf of me and my cat?

Most folks will have a robust desire to know our cat’s emotions and identify their needs the maximum amount as we are able. In multi-cat households, we’ll also want our cats to urge along well with one another. What this research suggests is that we not only got to think twice about the kinds of health conditions certain breeds could be more susceptible to, but also how their physical appearance might limit how easily they’re ready to communicate, both with us and with others cats. This research suggests that we may have inadvertently selected certain breeds (i.e. those with brachycephalic faces) to seem like they’re in pain, even when they’re not. The rationale we’d find these kinds of facial appearances ‘cute’ or appealing is that they’ll look more vulnerable or needy. This might then motivate us to worry about and protect them, even once they don’t need it. The downside for our cats is that they’ll receive unwanted attention from us once they might just like it better to have some peace. Or equally, once they are literally in pain or distressed and do need our help, will we be ready to tell?