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Pssst: If you can you tell what she’s thinking, you may be a “cat whisperer”

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Many people think cats are hard to read, but some Canadian researchers wanted to find out just how true that is. And it turns out that some people can read cats pretty well. That’s according to new research from the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph (UG) in Ontario, Canada.

The researchers point out that previous research on reading cats’ faces has focused on expressions of pain. They said that their study is the first to look at how well people can assess a wider range of feline emotions, both negative and positive.

For the study, the researchers recruited more than 6,300 people from 85 countries and asked them to watch 20 short, online videos of cats engaged in various activities.

The videos showed cats experiencing either positive emotional states (situations the cats had sought out, such as playing, being petted, or given treats), or in negative states (such as experiencing health problems or being in situations that made them retreat or flee, such as being intimidated by other cats). Each video was focused on the cat’s face—their eyes, muzzles, and mouths.

The participants were then asked to judge whether each cat was in a positive state, a negative one, or if they weren’t sure. Most participants found the test challenging. Their average score was 12 out of 20—or a little better than chance.

But a few people, mostly women and people who worked with animals in some capacity, were able to interpret the cats’ expressions to a greater degree of accuracy—correctly scoring 15 or better. The researchers informally dubbed this group “the cat whisperers.”

NEWStat asked coauthor Georgia Mason, PhD, a professor and researcher at UG’s Center for the Study of Animal Welfare, how learning to read cats’ expressions more accurately could be beneficial.

“We think it could help pet owners better bond with their pets and glean more enjoyment from living with cats by helping them ‘decode’ these subtle little animals,” Mason said. “It could also help veterinarians and veterinary technicians become even better—or [get] better faster—at clinical assessment.”

Given that women and people who work with animals tended to read cats’ emotions better than average, and the fact that roughly two thirds of veterinarians are women, Mason said the study “bodes well for cat veterinary care!” Although she stresses that the gender effect was small—roughly 19 men scored a cat’s emotion correctly for every 20 women who did: “In other words, men can be great at this, too. And, conversely, women can be bad.”

“The effect of being a veterinarian or veterinary technician was much stronger than the effect of gender,” Mason added.

As for what veterinary professionals should take away from the study: “The subtle cues you’re tuning into are really valid and useful for assessing cat wellbeing,” Mason said.

In other words, keep on whispering.

Find out if you’re a cat whisperer by taking The UG Cat Faces Quiz.

Photo credit: © iStock/Tsuji