Few animals can look as smug or self-satisfied as a cat, and with the upturned corners of their mouth, you may wonder, “do cats smile?”

While felines certainly do have a vast range of expressions, smiling is a form of human communication.

But, that doesn’t mean they don’t have their own ways of smiling or expressions that look like smiling, and understanding these can deepen our understanding of cats and improve feline welfare.

Keep reading to learn more!

READ MORE: How to Tell How Old Kittens Are?

Can Cats Smile?

cat smiling wide but do cats smile when they're happy?

The expression that looks most like a cat smile is something called the flehmen response. A cat will lift their top lips to gather up the scent of pheromones from another cat for the Jacobson’s organ in its mouth. 

Other times we think a cat can smile because of the anatomy of its mouth, with its lips naturally curving upward.

In reality, baring teeth is a vital part of animal behavior. It can mean showing dominance or giving a warning when threatened, 

This doesn’t mean cats can’t smile, they just do it differently. Cats smile with their eyes, by staring at us with soft, lazy eyes and giving us a “slow blink”, they are showing us a smile. 

Pet owners can give a slow blink back. These slow blink interactions can be an easy way of exchanging affection between yourself and your cat. 

Why Do Cats Smile?

Sometimes it does look like our cat is giving a genuine smile. It’s vital that pet owners can read animal behavior.

We can be relatively sure that cats are not trying to communicate how they feel when they seem to be smiling. So, why do they ‘smile’ then? 

1. Pain

Cat “smiling” can be a response to severe, sudden pain. This can serve as a helpful indicator in gauging the health and welfare of cats.

Suppose you notice this happen when you touch a specific spot or press down in the abdominal area. In that case, it could signify something more serious. 

If there is reasonable cause that your cat might be in pain, the facial expression may indicate that you should act on it and visit a vet.

Maine coon with bright green eyes

2. About to attack

It is the one case in which the smiling expression may serve to communicate, at the very least, a warning. A cat does not make an elaborate facial expression before attacking prey. This is common animal behavior.

Cats share complex social interactions. When a cat is in conflict with another cat, it might don a severe, smiling expression before attacking.

Along with obvious cues in the cat’s body language such as hissing and bristling, the intent to attack is usually clear. The behavior can also occur during very stressful situations.

READ MORE: Warning Signs When Introducing Cats to Each Other

3. A specialized sense of smell

Cats have additional receptors in the soft tissue in the roof of their mouth. Contracting their face into smile-like expressions allows them to analyze complex odors via a sensory perception called the flehmen response.

A range of species of both wild and domestic animals also exhibit the flehmen response. It appears to be more noticeable in adult cats because they generally have a neutral expression. 

Being able to do this is particularly important for interpreting pheromones that other cats give off. A strong urine smell can also evoke the expression.

How Do Cats Smile?

orange cat slow blinking

Cats have some behaviors that are close to a smile in cat language. The closest is slow blinking behaviors.

The cat may stare at you with a soft face and blink slowly, almost as though they are sleepy.

This seems to be a form of emotional communication between cats and humans. If you blink back, they may blink again.

The slow blinking seems to be associated with positive emotions and bonding, much like smiling.

Check: How Do I Know My Cat Loves Me?

Do Cats Understand Smiles?

cute kitten smirking

Cat’s do not understand smiles the way people do. It’s hard to guess what a cat might think when they see a human smiling, but there is no reason to believe that they interpret it as happy.

Cat lovers know that their feline friends are high up on the list when it comes to animal cognition, but certain human behaviors just don’t register. We are very loud creatures to cats, which is why they need to tune us out. 

On the other hand, a sensitive cat can be made very uncomfortable by smiling and eye contact.

If a stranger arrives at the door with a gigantic smile and making hard eye contact, a timid cat can read this a threatening behavior and try to scarper.

This can be confusing to a visitor or child who just wanted to cuddle the kitty.

Check: How to Tickle a Cat

8 Signs That Your Cat is Happy

  1. A happy cat is a playful cat. That might involve faux-hunting and chasing, pawing, and scratching.
  2. Subtle eye contact. Happy cats communicate that they are content with your presence by slow blinking. Remember to blink back! It’s only polite.
  3. If a cat is relaxed, likely, it is also content. An unhappy cat won’t lie around with a relaxed posture. Calmer situations also make for a happier cat.
  4. A cat’s ears and eyes can tell you a bit about its mood. A happy cat will have their ears upright, tilted ever so slightly back and facing forward, but not perked. Its pupils may dilate if it is very happy. 
  5. Where the cat sleeps says a lot about how they feel. Sleeping close to you or other pets indicates that your cat has positive relationships with her housemates that make her happy. Sleeping close to you is one of the signs that a cat loves you
  6. Happy cats eat well. Your cat’s appetite can be a good measurement for their general mood. If they are happy, they will have a healthy appetite. Just as is the case with humans, eating too little or too much might signify that they are experiencing emotional challenges.
  7. A happy cat will maintain an active grooming regimen. Cat’s largely groom themselves, but if they are unhappy, they may do so less often.
  8. Happy cats are generally pretty vocal. That depends on the breed and the individual cat, but happy cats make sounds. The pitch of the sound can tell you a lot about how your furry friend is doing. A higher pitch indicates that your cat is happy, or at least content. Low-pitched sounds suggest that they are irritated or uncomfortable.
  9. Confidence is another sign of a happy cat. It’s a little less obvious than some of the other tells, but your cat’s general attitude in terms of their confidence says a lot about their current state of mind.

If you want to make your cat happy, check out this video:

Related: 7 Signs Your Cat Loves You

FAQs

HOW CAN YOU TELL IF A CAT IS HAPPY?

lady petting his orange Maine coon cat

A happy cat has a healthy appetite, is comfortable in its environment, and is generally playful. It all varies among individual cats, but high-pitched vocalizations and purring are also good indicators. A cat’s general attitude also says a lot about its state of mind. Confidence indicates that a cat is happy.

SHOULD I SMILE AT MY CAT?

You can smile at your cat if you like. A warm smile with relaxed closed lips and a slow blink is best. There are no conclusive studies that suggest that cats interpret human smiles in any way.

Cat’s are pretty smart, and they know that we aren’t cats. They don’t seem to read too much into our expressions or body language. On the whole, they instead look for cues in the tone of our voices.

WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE WHEN A CAT IS SMILING?

A kitty smile looks similar to a human smile if a bit comically strained. The corners of the cat’s mouths pull up, and its mouth is open. Its lips pull to its gums with teeth visible. 
A cat may also squint her eyes, particularly if she is analyzing pheromones. 

CAN CATS BE TICKLISH?

We can’t know for certain if cats are ticklish since we don’t know how they process sensations. But research suggests most mammals are ticklish to some extent. 

There are behaviors associated with tickling cats in various spots that suggest they may experience something like being ticklish. Responses may include purring, wriggling, and even hissing if they aren’t enjoying it.

Conclusion

Cats can contract their faces into an expression that looks like a smile. However, while it can be very cute, it does not express the same thing that a human smile does. 

Aside from being a warning, a cat might make the expression an involuntary response to sudden and severe pain. In most cases, however, they are likely analyzing complex pheromones using the soft tissue in the roof of their mouths. The latter is called the flehmen response. 

References

  • Corney, Charlotte. 2019. “Can Cats Smile?” BBC Science Focus Magazine. BBC Science Focus Magazine. 2019. https://www.sciencefocus.com/nature/can-cats-smile/.
  • Crowell-Davis, Sharon L., Terry M. Curtis, and Rebecca J. Knowles. 2004. “Social Organization in the Cat: A Modern Understanding.” Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery 6 (1): 19–28. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jfms.2003.09.013.
  • O’Malley, Carly I. 2019. “Cat Senses: An Exploration.” Petozy. Petozy. January 22, 2019. https://petozy.com/blogs/about-cats/cat-senses-an-exploration.
  • PetMD Editorial. 2018. “Cat Sneering: What Is the Flehmen Response?” Petmd.com. PetMD. January 16, 2018. https://www.petmd.com/cat/general-health/cat-sneering-what-flehmen-response.
  • Wooten, Sarah. 2018. “How Can Cats Find Their Way Home If Lost?” Petmd.com. PetMD. October 24, 2018. https://www.petmd.com/cat/pet-lover/how-can-cats-find-their-way-home-if-lost-0.
a happy kitten so do cats smile?
Linda
Linda

Dr. Linda Simon MVB MRCVS is a locum veterinary surgeon who has worked in London for the past 8 years. She graduated top of her class in small animal medicine from UCD, Dublin. She is currently a member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.
Linda is the resident vet for Woman magazine and a frequent contributor to People’s Friend Magazine, the Dogzone website, Vet Help Direct and Wag! Linda also writes content for the CVS veterinary group, Vetwriter and a number of other establishments.

As well as working in clinic, Linda is an online vet for www. JustAnswer.com where she has been providing online advice for thousands of owners since 2018.

In her spare time, Linda enjoys baking, yoga and running around after her young son!

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