Brachycephaly means communication issues for cats

Although research into the adverse effects of brachycephalism in cats is relatively scarce—especially compared to similar research on brachycephalic dogs—selection for shorter skulls with reduced nasal bones has been linked to an increased likelihood of suffering from respiratory and other health problems.

Now, new research indicates that selective breeding for brachycephalic features in cats—the flattened, pushed-in face common to breeds such as Burmese, Persians, and Himalayans—has compromised their ability to accurately communicate fear, anxiety, and pain.

In the study, researchers used a computer algorithm to analyze facial data from more than 2,000 cat photos and assign a score from neutral to full-on grimace to each one. Next, they compared the neutral facial expressions of various cat breeds—both brachycephalic and nonbrachycephalic—against the grimacing facial expressions of domestic shorthair cats recovering from routine surgeries.

They found that while cats aren’t particularly expressive to begin with, brachycephalic cats seemed to display “pain-like” facial expressions even when completely relaxed—and one breed, the Scottish fold, scored even higher for pain-like facial expressions than shorthair cats who were in pain.

Given that brachycephalic cat breeds are among the most popular, and bred specifically for that flat-faced look, the study’s findings have far-reaching implications for pet owners and veterinarians alike.

NEWStat asked lead author Lauren Finka, PhD, a research associate in the School of Animal Rural & Environmental Sciences at Nottingham Trent University in England, how selective breeding for the brachycephalic face type in cats affects their ability to communicate.

Finka said that selecting for extreme features in either direction—brachycephalic or dolichocephalic—results in changes to the general shape and appearance of the face. “This is happening in ways that may limit individuals’ abilities to produce facial expressions which are clearly identifiable by humans and, potentially, other cats.”

That’s a problem because cats don’t have a particularly complex repertoire for social communication, thereby elevating the critical importance of communicating via facial expression.

Finka said making their communicative processes any more challenging than they are already could be a serious issue, especially for their owners: “Humans aren’t very good at ‘reading’ cats’ faces, and such intense selective breeding for exaggerated features is likely to make our job even more difficult.”

Which raises an interesting question: why are people so attracted to brachycephalic cats?

Finka thinks it’s analogous to people’s attraction to the infantile features of human babies: “These pain-like appearances tap into our innate urge to nurture,” she said. “They look cute but also vulnerable and in need of our care and attention, which may feel emotionally very rewarding for us. Even if the cat would actually prefer to be left alone!”

She said it’s likely that brachycephalic dog breeds—such as the English bulldog, French bulldog, pug, Pekingese, and Boston terrier—have the same issues with communication.

“It might even be worse for them, given the typical expressivity of their faces and their potential importance in communication with [people] as well as other dogs,” Finka said, noting that brachycephalic dogs have also been more extensively bred and selected than brachycephalic cats and therefore have a greater overall diversity in facial shapes.

Her advice to veterinarians: Encourage owners of brachycephalic breeds to be vigilant for general indicators of pain and poor health, such as changes in temperament, responses to handling, and general maintenance behaviors.

And make sure they’re aware of the difficulties they might have in effectively expressing themselves: since their facial expressions may look like they’re always in pain, “Owners might not notice when these cats are actually in pain.”

Photo credit: © FatCamera/E+ via Getty Images

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