Selective breeding ‘may have impacted cats’ ability to communicate’ – study

Researchers analysed pictures of nearly 2,000 cat faces.

Persian cat
Persian cat

Selective breeding of cats may have impacted their ability to effectively communicate through facial expressions, according to scientists.

Pedigree flat-faced (brachycephalic) cats with big eyes or “grumpy” features are often known to have breathing difficulties, problems with their eyes, and other health conditions.

Despite their painful medical issues, these breeds have increased in popularity in recent years, with celebrities such as Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran fuelling the trend.

But in a study published in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science, researchers have also found these exaggerated features may also negatively affect a cat’s ability to express themselves via their faces.

Lead researcher Dr Lauren Finka, a feline behaviour and welfare specialist in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Animal, Rural and Environmental Sciences, said: “Our work suggests that breed-related issues may not only affect cats’ physical health, but also their communicative abilities.

“During the course of the cat’s domestication, we have vastly altered their physical appearance, creating a diverse range of modern cat breeds.

“Our preference for them to have features that we find cute or similar to the expressions we recognise in humans – such as cuteness, vulnerability or a frowning grumpy appearance – may have unintentionally disrupted their ability to clearly express themselves and communicate.”

As part of the study, the researchers analysed pictures of nearly 2,000 cat faces – which included popular breeds such as Persian, Bengal, Norwegian Forest, Egyptian Mau, Devon Rex and Scottish Fold.

They found many flat-faced breeds appeared to display more “pain-like” expressions, even though they were not considered to be in distress, when compared with those with more proportioned features (mesocephalic) and elongated faces (dolichocephalic).

For example, the researchers said, Scottish Folds’ facial features scored higher for pain-like expressions, when compared to domestic short-haired cats that were actually in pain.

Dr Finka added: “Many cat owners will be aware of the different facial expressions their cats display and that these expressions may change depending on what the cat needs or how they are feeling.

“Our findings suggest that at a species level, these signals may be disrupted; if certain breeds have been inadvertently selected to look grumpy or in pain, we might be motivated to care for or give these cats more attention than they would prefer, or conversely be unable to tell when they might actually be in pain and need our help.

“Cats may also struggle to communicate with one another which might lead to increased conflict in multi-cat homes.”

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