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Can Cats Smile? What You Need to Know!

white british cat lying

Have you looked at your cat before and thought, “Hey, they’re smiling at me!”? It’s a look that’s not uncommon—mouth turned up, eyes closed. It looks just like a grin.

So, is it actually? Can cats smile? The answer is a bit complicated. That little happy look cats sometimes have isn’t actually a grin, but cats do have their own way of smiling (and ways of expressing happiness). You just have to know what to look for.

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Can Cats Smile?

Technically, cats can “smile” in a way that resembles a human smile. They have the muscular structure to make expressions resembling ours. However, this “smile” isn’t an indicator of happiness or contentedness.

Instead, when this occurs, your cat is smelling certain odors rich in pheromones (like the urine of another cat). Cats don’t just smell pheromones with their noses, though. They have a receptor in the top of their mouth called the Jacobson’s organ that is used to take in extra information. When the pheromones are drawn in, it activates something called the “flehmen response” (wherein pheromones are drawn to the Jacobson’s organ), which is characterized by a facial expression that includes the uptilted lips, squinty eyes, and a cocked head. So, your kitty isn’t smiling—it’s smelling!

One more instance where your cat may look like it’s giving you a grin is when it’s feeling a bit aggressive and showing its teeth. Definitely not a happy kitty in that case!

siamese kitten with blue eyes
Image Credit: Alla Vanahs, Shutterstock

How Cats Actually Smile

So, if the facial expression that looks like a grin isn’t actually a display of happiness, then how exactly do cats smile? Recent research has found that our feline friends “smile” with their eyes! When a cat is smiling at another cat (or yourself), they do it by narrowing their eyes. And you can “smile” back at your cat!

When we make our eyes narrower, it results in a “slow blink”. This action makes us much more friendly and attractive in the eyes of our feline friends. You’ll find that cats will usually return this “smile” to the people who have smiled at them first. Try it with your cat!

cat owner talking to his pet
Image Credit: Piqsels

How Do I Know When My Cat Is Happy?

Though you won’t be able to tell if your kitty is happy via a grin, there are several other ways you can recognize when they’re feeling this emotion.

  • Body language. Cats use a variety of body language to get across their emotions to others, including happiness. One way is by incorporating the “slow blink” version of a smile. Another is by the position and activity of their tails. If your cat’s tail is sticking up straight and flicking just a bit, it’s an indicator that it is content, eager to play, or super into you and whatever is going on. A question-mark shaped tail can also indicate happiness. Likewise, upright and forward-pointing ears can also indicate your feline is pleased.
  • Kneading. Cats love to knead or “make biscuits”. It’s an instinct that goes back to kittenhood when they would knead their mother to get milk. Once they get older, though, kneading can be used to scent mark objects (and people), stretch, and indicate happiness. If you have a knead-y kitty on your lap (especially if you’re petting them), they’re letting you know they’re quite pleased.
  • Purring. Purring can be indicative of a good many things — fear, pain, nervousness — and also happiness. If you’re cuddling your cat, giving it love and purring is the response, you can count it as the equivalent of a smile.
  • Bunting. When felines want to bond, they’ll rub their head on you (otherwise known as bunting). By doing this, they’re both marking you as “theirs” by making sure you smell like them and releasing pheromones that equal an affectionate greeting.

All the above behaviors indicate that your cat is pleased as punch!

owner with her cat at home
Image Credit: Pixel-Shot, Shutterstock

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Conclusion

Cats do smile, but they don’t smile the same way as humans do (despite the fact they can look like they are). Instead, they indicate happiness with a variety of behaviors that include body language, kneading, purring, and bunting. Watching your kitty’s behavior can offer you clear clues on what they’re feeling, so keep a close eye on them—and give them a “slow blink” every once in a while!


Featured Image Credit: EleniaPhoto, Shutterstock

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