Does your cat recognise your happy face?

Are cats simply self-absorbed creatures whose relationship with their human is primarily based around the dishing up of cat food? Or, as new research suggests, is there a high level of emotional intelligence going on behind those fabulously enigmatic feline eyes? How do cats see humans? Do cats recognise faces? Do cats remember people? Do cats miss their owners? Do
Featured image for Does your cat recognise your happy face?
11th March 2021

Are cats simply self-absorbed creatures whose relationship with their human is primarily based around the dishing up of cat food? Or, as new research suggests, is there a high level of emotional intelligence going on behind those fabulously enigmatic feline eyes?

How do cats see humans? Do cats recognise faces? Do cats remember people? Do cats miss their owners? Do we own cats or do cats own us? Although they’ve shared our lives for centuries and are well-loved members of many human families – an estimated 26% of the UK population own a cat (according to the  PDSA) – there’s still a lot about our feline friends that we don’t know.

For a long time, cats have received less research attention than dogs and their cognitive abilities – the mental process involved in knowing, learning and understanding things – were less recognised. However, in the last 10 years, research focusing on trying to better understand our feline companions and what they are able to do, has grown.

Ramona Marek, author of Cats for the GENIUS, says: “Cats are among the smartest creatures in the animal kingdom. They often get short shrift on the perception of intelligence, especially when compared to dogs, but not because dogs outsmart them. There are simply a greater number of studies about intelligence, memory, and cognitive abilities in dogs, and that research doesn’t transfer to cats. Much of the information about feline intelligence comes from cat owner anecdotes, plus the few studies designed for cats to give us a glimpse into the unique feline intelligence.”

She states that, like humans, cats learn by observation and doing: “Examples include opening doors, ringing bells and turning on light switches. This is procedural memory, and cats excel at it. Research shows these memories last 10 years or more. Cats associate the memory of an event or place with the emotions they experienced in the surroundings or locations.”

Ivan the brainiac

Marek provides a glimpse into examples of the intelligence of her own pet cats: “Ivan, my 12-year-old Siberian, is a brainiac. It’s a challenge sometimes to stay one step ahead of him. When he was about four months old, he learned to open a cabinet door to get his favourite toy. He then transferred that knowledge to other cabinets and various types of closet doors not only in our home but also in our pet sitter’s home. One day I heard a slam-bang noise and discovered Natasha, our diva cat, opening the original cabinet, under Ivan’s tutelage. Ivan’s behaviour is the definition of intelligence in action, and many cat parents tell similar stories.”

Yet, when it comes to studying cat intelligence, scientists have had their work cut out for them, as online news editor of Science, David Grimm, reports in his article – Cats rival dogs on many tests of social smarts. But is anyone brave enough to study them?


The pointing test

Grimm reveals: “In 1998, Ádám Miklósi, a cognitive ethologist at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, published a study showing dogs could understand human pointing. Their finding sparked a canine cognition revolution, helping confirm that domesticated animals such as dogs were worthy of study. Researchers have learned that dogs can recognise emotion in people's faces, understand components of human speech, and may even have a sense of fairness and ethics. in 2005. In the first study to directly compare how cats and dogs communicate with people, he and colleagues conducted the pointing test at pet owners' homes.

“The cats performed as well as the dogs. But, foreshadowing a headache that would plague the field of feline social cognition, several cats ‘dropped out’ of the study. Some stopped paying attention. Others simply walked away from the testing site. What should have been the beginning of a revolution in feline social cognition turned out to be a dead end. No one followed up on Miklósi's study, including Miklósi himself, who vowed never to work with cats again. "I think everybody tried, and almost everybody gave up," he says, laughing. It would be nearly a decade before almost anyone tried again.”

However, more research studies into feline social cognition have begun to emerge, with a small but growing number showing that cats match dogs in many tests of social smarts. Grimm says: “Ethologist Péter Pongrácz, a colleague of Miklósi's at Eötvös Loránd, has taken the pointing test to the next level. Instead of using fingers, members of his team simply gazed at an object, sometimes just for a split second. Cats followed the gaze 70% of the time, the group reported late last year, similar to the performance of dogs.”

Cats gaze to share information the way people do

This is particularly significant because: “Most animals rarely gaze at each other, and when they do it's often a sign of hostility, Pongrácz says. To see cats use gaze the way people do –to share information – is “really surprising,” he says. “The findings provide stronger proof that cats have evolved to be capable of complex communication with humans.”

Ramona Marek agrees: “Cats clearly have a superior ability to learn new information, mesh it with existing information, recall it, and use that information in other situations. This cognitive ability makes them card-carrying members of the highly intelligent class. We may never know the full depth of feline cognitive abilities, but their keen aptitude continues to surprise us.”

Can cats recognise emotion?

Feline welfare charity, International Cat Care, asked Dr Naima Kasbaoui, a member of their iCatCare Feline Wellbeing Panel, to review a recent research paper by Angelo Quaranta and colleagues investigating how good cats are at matching visual and auditory information from both cats and people – a measure of their ability to recognise emotions.

Dr Kasbaoui reports: “It has been shown that cats are able to recognise other cats, either by sniffing them and identifying their unique chemical profile, or by hearing them. Cats can also discriminate between familiar and unfamiliar humans, recognise human faces and voices, and make the mental match between the two. But are cats capable of recognising emotions, in their feline fellows and in people? Are they able to recognise when a person or a cat is angry or happy? And would they be able to do that by integrating visual and auditory signals? That is
what researchers within the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Bari, Italy, set out to investigate.”

The happy face experiment

  • First, the authors recorded sounds of one male and female cat, each of them in two situations, the first where they would hiss and the second where they would purr. Also, a man and a woman were recorded laughing and growling. Finally, a neutral sound was downloaded from the internet. Authors then took photographs of the same cats hissing and purring, and of the same people demonstrating a ‘human angry face’ and a ‘human happy face’.
  • Ten cats were tested in their own homes, in a quiet room, where a projector and screen were installed, and a speaker was placed behind the screen. Cats were facing the screen, sitting on their owner’s lap. Each trial consisted of a recorded sound (angry, neutral or happy) emitted by the speaker while two faces were simultaneously projected on the bottom corners of the screen. If the sound was hissing or purring, the ‘hissing cat face’ and ‘purring cat face’ would be projected, and if the sound was laughing or human growling, the ‘human happy face’ and ‘human angry face’ would be projected.
  • The question was ‘will the cats be able to match sound and face’. and to answer it, the duration that the cats spent looking at each face was recorded, along with a whole range of behaviours that could be considered expressions of stress or discomfort. Every trial was filmed by two camcorders. Researchers looked at what face the cat would look at the longest.

So, what were the findings?

Dr Kasbaoui reveals: “Researchers found that cats were looking significantly longer at the face whose expression matched the sound they heard, for ‘cat hiss’, ‘human anger’ and ‘human happiness’, but interestingly, not for ‘cat purr’, maybe because there is not an easy distinguishable face for purring in cats. They also found that younger cats (three to four years) were better at this task than older cats (five to nine years). Regarding the ‘stress behaviours’, they found that cats displayed significantly more ‘stress behaviour’ to ‘cat hiss’ and ‘human anger’ than for any other stimuli.”

What are Dr Kasbaoui conclusions? She states: “I found this study really interesting because it takes our understanding of cats and their abilities a bit deeper. From previous studies, in cats and other companion species (dogs and horses for example), we know that they are able to match voices and faces, but here it is demonstrated that cats are able to recognise two emotions in human (a positive and a negative one), and that they are able to recognise the message conveyed by a cat hiss and look at the matching cat face. This is an interesting study that helps us to know more about cat’s abilities to navigate the world of human and cat emotions.”

How socially smart is your cat?

To find out whether your cat can pass some common tests of social intelligence, why not try these simplified experiments at home. Make sure your cat is calm and relaxed before you start.


When your cat is calm, say four words of about the same length and accent as their name, waiting 15 seconds between words. Then, say their name. Sit in a room with your cat. Ignore them, sitting quietly or paying attention to a book or phone, for two minutes. Then, try to interact with your cat – call them to you. If they come, pet and talk to them.

WHAT IT MEANS: If your cat gradually reacts less to each random word but responds to their name by turning their head toward you, rotating their ears, or moving their tail, they probably ‘know’ their name.


Take your cat into a room with a potentially alarming object they have never seen before, such as a robot vacuum. Sit calmly on the floor with your cat, then make friends with the object, saying ‘what a nice vacuum’ in a calm, friendly voice. Approach the object and touch it

WHAT IT MEANS: If your cat is initially freaked out but calms down – and even approaches the object after you make friends with it – then it’s likely that your cat can pick up on your emotional cues and alter its behaviour in kind. This reveals that your mood can influence your cat’s mood. So, for example, if you’re calm and chipper when you’re visiting the vet’s surgery, your cat may stay calm as well.


Sit in a room with your cat. Ignore them, sitting quietly or paying attention to a book or phone, for two minutes. Then, try to interact with your cat – call them to you. If they come, pet and talk to them.

WHAT IT MEANS: Highly social cats immediately come to you when you begin to pay attention to them, whereas more independent cats keep their distance. If your cat tends to be antisocial, try spending more time with them. Like humans, cats can become more friendly if we make extra effort.


Pick a few items you think your cat may enjoy, such as treats and toys. Set them on the ground, sit nearby, and see where your cat lingers (by you or the food or toys).

WHAT IT MEANS: Your cat prefers whatever they spend the most time with. But they may just be hungry. Repeat the experiment in varied situations to be sure of their preferences. If your cat prefers you to toys or treats, the best incentive when training or rewarding them may simply be your presence.

Is your cat a Burgess cat? Join the Burgess Pet Club for exclusive offers and rewards.

If you found this interesting, you may also like:

WANT TO ADOPT A CAT? HERE'S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW If inviting a fluffy, four-pawed feline companion to join your family is at the top of your wish list, you’ll need to buy all the kit – a cosy cat bed, a cat carrier, a cat litter box, a cat scratching post, a selection of cute cat toys and, of course, some top-quality cat food.

GOT A CAT QUESTION? Cats certainly have their funny little ways, often doing things that we humans find baffling. Whether you have a question about ‘Why does my cat lick me?’, ‘Why does my cat bite me?’, ‘Why does my cat stare at me?” we’ve some interesting and informative answers.

WHY SOME CATS AREN'T CUDDLY Some cats love to sit in a comfy lap for hours on end, but others shy away from too much physical contact. The reason for this behaviour lies in their solitary and independent nature…

CAT CHAT While cats use a range of vocalisations such as yowling, hissing and growling to communicate with each other, meowing isn’t one of them. This is a behaviour they’ve adopted just for humans. But what are they trying to tell us?

10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU Some of the things that we humans do really aren’t appreciated by our beloved pet cats

HOW CAT FRIENDLY IS YOUR HOME? You may have created a home that’s just perfect for you – but what does your cat think about it?

GUARDIANS OF THEIR GALAXY As every cat owner knows, felines are a territorial species. They decide who is welcome into their domain and who is not. But why are they so fussed about it?

GARDEN DESIGNS FOR YOUR CAT Providing your favourite feline with an entrancing outdoor space that they’ll want to spend lots of time in will help to keep them safely out of mischief...


Blog categories







Guinea pigs

Guinea pigs

Small animals

Small animals