Although many people regard them as inscrutable and mysterious, cats can be the most wonderfully expressive creatures. Every part of a cat can convey some kind of emotion, from their ears and whiskers to their agile tails. The ways that cats communicate information aren’t quite the same as the ones humans use, however, and a certain amount of inter-species confusion is inevitable. Once you get to know a cat, though, there’s no mistaking what kind of mood she’s in. Cats may not have quite the same facial expressions as us but many are actually remarkably similar.
Can cats smile? Not exactly. While their mouths and jaws do have the musculature to produce a similar expression to a human smile, they don’t really express happiness or amusement by smiling. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some cats may manage this but it would be unusual. Certain cats also appear to have a permanent smile due to the shape of their mouths.
You’ve arrived on this page because you’re curious about the ways in which cats show emotion. Maybe you’ve noticed that your cat never smiles and you’re worried that she might be sad. Maybe you’ve seen cats with smiles and you’re wondering if they’re really happy.
- Can cats smile? If a cat seems to be smiling, is it really happy?
- How can you tell if a cat is in a good mood?
Read on to find out everything you want to know about cats and their many enchanting expressions.
Can cats smile?
Among the most famous cats, one of them all is Lewis Carroll’s fictional Cheshire cat, a grinning feline brought vividly to life by John Tenniel’s illustrations. This cat’s grin was so remarkable that it would stay behind even when the rest of the cat had disappeared.
It’s quite possible that Carroll and Tenniel’s cat was based on a real-life breed. The British Shorthair — one of my very favourite breeds of a cat — has a pronounced and permanent smile on its friendly face. You’ve probably seen the famous Happycat images on the internet, the one that was captioned “I can haz cheezeburger?” Happycat is a British Blue, the most quintessential type of British Shorthair kitty, with his breed’s trademark smiley face. They’re sometimes described as “teddy-bear cats”, in part due to this jolly expression.
While I can’t speculate on how much the image may or may not have been altered to enhance that friendly smile, I can attest to the British Shorthair’s amiable countenance. There are many cats with a similarly smiley looking face. It’s not really a smile, just the way that their jowls, jaws and whisker pads are configured. Still, if you’ve ever met a member of that chummy breed, you’ll know that they have a temperament to match their expression. While this breed’s trademark beam is very pronounced, they don’t have a monopoly on friendly faces — lots of cats seem to smile.
In many cases, this contented smile is actually the cat’s neutral expression and doesn’t really reflect her moods. Cats can “smile”, after a fashion. There are certain muscles and tendons in their faces that can pull up their the corners of their lips in the semblance of a smile; they can also appear to grin, showing their teeth. Do not mistake these expressions for a look of happiness or enjoyment, however. A cat’s mouth may quirk up at the corners when she smells something interesting or unpleasant. A cat that suddenly grins is not showing you that she’s in a good mood. In fact, in the inverse of the Cheshire Cat, it might be a good time for you to disappear if you see your cat wearing this kind of expression. Far from demonstrating amusement, those bared teeth are a sign that your cat has lost her temper and may become aggressive.
Your cat does “smile”, in the sense of conveying happy emotions through physical means. It’s just that she does it a little differently from the way that humans do. Instead of smiling or laughing, cats have a range of different signals that can let you know she’s in a good mood.
In the following sections, we’ll look more at the meaning of the feline “smile”, as well as learning about the ways that cats display happiness and contentment.
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Why is my cat smiling? Is she happy?
If your cat’s neutral expression looks smiley and contented, that may simply be the way her face is configured. If her expression changes to something resembling a grin or a smile, that can indicate a number of things. One may be that she’s picked up an interesting pheromone source.
If you see your cat’s mouth turn up at the corners, particularly if she seems very interested in something, this may well be the “Flehmen response”. Like some other animals, cats have an additional sensory receptor known as the Jacobson’s organ. The Flehmen response directs scent and pheromone molecules up towards the roof of your cat’s mouth, allowing them to sense things we can’t.
You’ll often see the Flehmen response when your cat is investigating a spot where other cats have been, particularly if they may have marked it using their scent glands. You might also see your cat making this distinctive “smile” near her food bowl, as she tests the air near the food to make sure it’s safe to start eating.
The Flehmen response can look a lot like smiling, especially in cats. You’ll see other creatures pulling the same “smiling” face, such as horses. Now you know why.
Why does my cat smile when she’s angry?
An angry, aggressive cat will often begin her display of outrage by baring her teeth. This can often look like a big grin, especially if your cat’s mouth naturally curls up a little at the corners. Most cats will scream, growl or hiss during this display, which should give you a strong indication of their actual emotions. Not all cats vocalise in this way, however. If you have one of those quiet cats, you may not pick up on her change in mood as easily. Without the familiar hissing and spitting of an angry cat, those bared teeth really can resemble a grin to those who aren’t familiar with the signs of a grouchy cat.
If your kitty is baring her teeth at you in this way, though, it’s a sign that something is wrong. She’s scared, angry or in pain. It’s a good idea to cease whatever activity you might have been engaged in and gently move out of her personal space. Look to see if there are any obvious signs of trouble, such as a claw that’s been snagged in the carpet. If you see one of your cats making this face at another, you should probably separate them until things cool off.
If your cat often makes this kind of expression (particularly if she follows through with aggressive behaviour), there may be a more serious problem that needs to be addressed. You cat may be suffering from long-term stress or anxiety, or she may have a physical problem that’s causing her to act out. Some cats are a little more temperamental than others but chronically aggressive behaviour isn’t something you have to put up with. Talk to your vet about your cat’s temper, especially if there’s been a recent personality change. Your vet may be able to give you some guidance into keeping your cat contented and happy.
If my cat doesn’t smile, how will I know she’s feeling good?
Pretty much every part of your cat’s body can convey positive emotions if you know what to look for. When you want to know if your cat is feeling happy, look for some of these signs.
• Her ears and tail are pointing straight up.
When your cat is happy, her ears will tend to prick up rather than lying flat (which can signify fear or anger). When standing or walking, her tail will often be vertical. A particularly happy and excited cat may have a little wiggle that travels up her tail from base to tip (not to be confused with a twitching or lashing tail).
• Her fur will be smooth and lie flat.
Fear or anger will make your cat’s fur stand on end. A cat who is bristling all over and has the distinctive “bottle-brush” tail is a very angry cat indeed. If her fur is smooth and flat, she’s not worried or upset.
• She approaches you head-on.
A scared or angry cat will instinctively try to look larger and more intimidating. This will lead her to arch her back, and turn sideways towards you so as to present a larger silhouette. A cat who scampers up with her face towards you is happy to see you.
• Her eyes are narrowed or closed.
Closed or half-closed is a sign that your cat feels confident and safe. It’s an especially positive sign if she makes eye contact with you and then shuts her eyes. Cat lovers call this a “cat kiss”.
• She’s purring.
Just as humans smile when they’re nervous, cats may purr when they’re anxious or in pain as a way of self-soothing. In general, though, a purring kitty is a happy kitty.
• She “talks” to you.
Miaowing can be a cat’s way of telling you that something is wrong. However, most cats have a specific miaow that they only use to greet or “chat” with their favourite humans. You’ll learn to recognise this in your own cat when you’ve known her for a little while.
• She shows you her tummy.
The stomach is a vulnerable and sensitive spot. A cat who rolls over on her back and shows you her undercarriage is telling you that she’s very happy and trusts you completely. She may also want a tummy tickle; approach with caution, though.
Article by Barbara Read
Barbara Read is the heart and soul behind CatBeep.com. From her early love for cats to her current trio of feline companions, Barbara's experiences shape her site's tales and tips. While not a vet, her work with shelters offers a unique perspective on cat care and adoption.