Can Cats Really Smile? The Surprising Truth About Your Feline’s “Smile”

Do cats have the facial muscles to smile?

Cats do have facial muscles that allow them to make different expressions, including ones that resemble human smiles. According to the Science Focus, cats have a zygomatic major muscle that allows them to pull up the corners of their mouth, similar to the way humans smile.

However, cats’ facial anatomy is quite different from humans’. Their faces are structured differently, and their range of facial expressions are more limited. So while cats have some analogous muscles and can make facial movements that may look like smiling to us, their facial expressions likely stem from different emotional states than human smiles.

When do cats smile?

Cats may exhibit smiling behavior during positive experiences when they are feeling happy and content. This includes when being petted gently or receiving affection from their owner, which can elicit a relaxation response.1 Smiles can also signify contentment during activities like nursing kittens or basking in a warm sunbeam.2

Some cat owners report that their cats appear to smile as a greeting when they return home, as an expression of affection. However, there is limited scientific evidence to confirm cats smile at their owners out of joy the way humans do. It may be anthropomorphism to assume a cat’s smile has the same meaning as a human smile.3 Still, a cat relaxing its facial muscles may be a sign it feels safe and content in your presence.

What does a cat’s smile look like?

Cats do not have the facial musculature to smile in the same way humans do. However, cats have their own distinct facial expressions and body language that indicate happiness or pleasure, which may look like a “smile” to human eyes.

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), when cats feel relaxed, safe, and content, their facial muscles relax into an expression that resembles a smile [1]. Key features of a cat’s smiling expression include:

  • Their mouth may be slightly open, with the corners pulled back
  • Their eyes tend to narrow or squint
  • Their ears often point straight up

This “smile” is not necessarily an expression of happiness like a human smile. But it does indicate your cat feels comfortable, safe, and content with you. So while not exactly the same as a human grin, a cat’s smile can represent a positive emotional state.

Do cats smile to show happiness?

While many cat owners believe their felines smile to express happiness, there is debate among animal behavior experts if cat smiles actually signal human-like emotions.

According to Dr. Mikel Delgado, a cat behavior expert at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, “We don’t know if [cat smiles] go along with that same experience of being happy” that humans feel when smiling (Source).

Rather, cat smiles may simply reflect a positive sensory or physiological state, such as enjoying being petted or basking in the sun. More research is needed to determine if cats experience complex emotions like happiness in the same way humans do.

While cat smiles may strengthen social bonds between pets and owners, it remains unclear if they indicate feline joy analogous to human smiling and laughter. Interpreting cat facial expressions within a human framework can lead to misattributing emotional states not present in cats.

Why do some argue cats don’t truly smile?

Some skeptics argue cats don’t truly smile like humans do. They point out that cats lack the complex emotions and social signaling associated with human smiles (Source). A cat’s “smile” is more of a reflexive response rather than an intentional expression. When a cat is relaxed and content, the muscles in its face may cause the corners of its mouth to curl upwards involuntarily. This facial configuration resembles a human smile, but does not necessarily indicate that the cat is happy in an emotional sense.

Additionally, critics claim we tend to anthropomorphize cat behavior, attributing complex human emotions behind their expressions that may not really exist. They argue a cat’s smile is simply a muscular response, not an intentional gesture to convey joy or strengthen social bonds. So in their view, referring to a cat’s reflexive facial response as a “smile” is inaccurate – it is not analogous to the meaning of a smile in human social interaction.

Do cat smiles strengthen human-cat bonds?

People enjoy perceiving cats as smiling at them. Interpreting a cat’s expressions as a smile or laugh can increase feelings of affection and attachment between cats and their human companions. When cats display relaxed, open-mouth expressions, many owners are inclined to anthropomorphize this as their pet “smiling” specifically at them. This reinforces the human perception of sharing a close, reciprocal bond.

Though feline facial expressions are not actually intended as “smiles” directed intentionally at humans, people find it psychologically rewarding to interpret cat smiles as a sign of happiness or affection. This can strengthen the human-animal bond. Cats displaying a “smile” are often simply relaxed, comfortable, or responding instinctively to being petted or stroked. While they may not be purposefully smiling at their owners, a cat’s inherently endearing facial expressions still promote bonding when cat lovers anthropomorphize them as smiles of affection.

So in summary – while cats likely don’t truly smile at humans the way humans do at each other, people perceive cat smiles as strengthening their relationship. This ultimately leads to greater feelings of fondness and attachment between cats and their loving owners.

Breed differences in cat smiles

Some claim Cheshire cats smile more than other breeds, but there are no scientific studies confirming breed differences in cat smiling frequency or intensity. The Cheshire cat’s perpetual grin in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland has led to a popular perception that Cheshire cats smile more than other breeds. However, this view remains anecdotal.

While some cat owners insist certain breeds like Maine Coons, Ragdolls, and Persians smile more often, there are no rigorous comparative studies on smiling frequency across breeds. Perceived differences may simply reflect selection bias, with fanciful stories circulating about breeds reputed to be extroverted and happy like the Ragdoll. Controlled experiments matching different breeds in the same environments would be needed to definitively establish breed differences in smiling behavior.

Until more systematic research is conducted, beliefs about breed differences in cat smiling likely remain more folklore than fact. While cats may exhibit individual differences in smiling frequency, conclusive evidence for breed differences remains elusive.

When to be concerned about excessive smiling

While cats may smile to show contentment, excessive or constant smiling could potentially signify an underlying medical issue. According to veterinarian Dr. Ivana Crnec, constant smiling and showing teeth could indicate dental problems like tooth resorption, abscesses, and periodontal disease that lead to pain and discomfort (1).

In some cases, excessive smiling may also point to neurological issues like feline hyperesthesia syndrome, which causes abnormal skin sensations that lead a cat to bite or lick excessively due to irritation (2). Other signs of this condition include dilated pupils, irritated skin, tail twitching, and sensitivity to touch.

If your cat seems to be smiling constantly and excessively, it’s a good idea to schedule a check-up with your veterinarian. An exam and diagnostic tests can help determine if there is an underlying medical issue causing the abnormal behavior. Proper treatment of any dental disease, neurological issues, or other health problems will provide your cat relief and restore their normal facial expressions.


How to capture your cat’s smile

Getting a picture of your cat’s smile takes a bit of preparation and technique. Have some treats, catnip, or favorite toys ready to help induce smiling. Get down on your cat’s eye level when taking photos rather than towering over them. Try to capture wide smiles during meows or big yawns when their mouth is open wide. According to photography tips from Expert Photography, shooting from a cat’s eye view can make for more intimate and engaging photos.

As recommended by pet photography guides like Dash Kitten, make use of natural lighting near a sunny window and avoid using a flash which can create harsh shadows and red-eye. Quick, continuous shooting can help capture the perfect smile shot. Telephoto zoom lenses allow you to keep your distance to avoid startling your cat while still getting closeup facial expressions. Most importantly, be patient and keep the session positive and stress-free for your cat.

Famous smiling cat stories

Some of the most well-known smiling cat images and stories come from works of fiction, memes, and viral photos. One of the most iconic is the Cheshire Cat from Lewis Carroll’s famous novel Alice in Wonderland. Known for his distinctive mischievous grin, the Cheshire Cat mystifies Alice with his expressive smile that remains even after his body disappears. This memorable character highlights the air of mystery and playfulness that a smiling cat can evoke.

In the internet age, smiling cats have reached new levels of fame through viral memes. A prime example is Smudge the Cat, who starred in the viral meme “Woman Yelling at a Cat.” His photo shows him sitting at a table, mouth open in an amused grin. The oddity of his human-like expression made Smudge a viral sensation.

Another famous smiling cat photo is that of Happy Cat, whose Mona Lisa-esque subtle smile became a hugely popular meme template in the mid 2000s. Happy Cat’s enigmatic slight upturned mouth inspired countless captions and jokes. These famous viral smiling cats prove that a cat’s smile continues to entrance humans just as much today as in fiction of old.

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