'Cat whisperers' are real and they can read feline faces

Some sensitive humans can feel out cats' emotions through their facial expressions.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
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This cat looks a little bored.

Amanda Kooser/CNET

If you have a cat handy, take a moment to study its face. Does it have a positive or negative expression? If you find it impossible to tell, then you might not be a "cat whisperer." Don't fret. Most people aren't.

Researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada decided to test how well people could determine cats' moods based on feline facial expressions. Some people were so good at it the researchers called them "cat whisperers."

The study involved 6,300 participants from 85 countries who watched 20 cat videos (mainly pulled from YouTube) and answered an online questionnaire. The pool of 40 videos the study used showed close-up face shots of cats that were in either a positive or negative emotional state. The viewers had to determine which it was, or say if they weren't sure.

Most people were average, getting 12 out of 20 right. The study found 13 percent of participants were very good at it, scoring 15 or better. The researchers found some trends in this group. The cat whisperers were more likely to be female and more likely to be veterinarians or vet techs.

The team published the results of the study in the November issue of the journal Animal Welfare.

"The ability to read animals' facial expressions is critical to welfare assessment. Our finding that some people are outstanding at reading these subtle clues suggests it's a skill more people can be trained to do," said study lead Lee Niel, a behavioral biologist at the university.  

You can test your own cat-sensing skills through an interactive online quiz created by the researchers. For the record, I scored a perfect 8 out of 8 for the initial quiz, but fell to a 6 out of 8 in the advanced quiz. Still, not too shabby for the tabby tabulation. 

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