It takes Potato, an eight-year-old British Shorthair cat, forever to eat. Her owner, artist Grant Conboy, says that this isn’t because of her couch-potato temperament as her given name implies. “The bowl just becomes too deep for her face because she has a flat face, eating in a bowl… the geometry of it doesn’t work out.”
A British Shorthair cat’s skull is brachycephalic, its defining characteristics being a very shortened muzzle, shallow eye sockets and narrowed airways that can cause breathing difficulties. Conboy points out that Potato does, in fact, snore very loudly. However, a new study led by Lauren Finka, a post-doctoral research associate at Nottingham Trent University, found that health difficulties are not the only problem those traits may be causing.
Decades of selective breeding for exaggerated features particularly in cats with brachycephalic skulls, like modern Persian and exotic shorthair cats, have resulted in cats with very flat, very round faces, and saucer-like eyes. Cats like Potato were likely bred as a result of human preference for infant-like features that tap into our nurturing instinct.
After analysing over 2,000 photos of cat faces, Finka found that these exaggerated features, though super adorable to us, negatively affected animal’s ability to effectively communicate and express their emotions to us. While Finka and her colleagues could clearly differentiate between ‘pain’ and ‘no pain’ expressions in the faces of domestic shorthaired cats, they found that they could not reliably differentiate between ‘pain’ in domestic shorthaired cats and the various other breeds with ‘neutral’ expressions. “In particular, brachycephalic breeds scored more highly for pain-like features, while some cats scored much lower,” she explains.
Like dogs, cats’ facial expressions often change depending on their mood and how they are feeling. Cats faces exhibit different expressions depending on whether they are fearful or in pain. However, selective breeding for exaggerated cute features could cause drastic alterations to their underlying facial structure and can disrupt the clarity of their expressions in breeds with brachycephalic skulls. “What this means is that in both cases, their facial shapes could limit how well they can actually express when they are in pain,” says Finka.
But correctly clarifying emotions and issues of effectively communicating isn’t solely limited to round, flat-faced cats. In general, scientists found a significant variation across different cat breeds when it came to the shapes of their faces and the way their facial markers conveyed their emotions. There are three main categories: Dolichocephalic skulls were more narrowed and elongated, like those of Siamese and Abyssinian cats. In comparison, their brachycephalic friends are flat-faced, and mesocephalic skulls of your average domestic short-haired cats are more proportioned. Even when its face was in a “neutral” position, a cat’s facial landmarks that change position during different expressions significantly varies based on the cat’s breed alone. To compensate for the lack of accurate communication, Finka’s research suggests that cat owners may find it more beneficial to try to understand how their pets are feeling based on behaviour or posture rather than their facial emotions.
Los Angeles–based artist and teacher Grant Conboy doesn’t just rely on his cat Potato’s facial expression to understand how she’s feeling. Conboy describes that when she’s afraid, Potato’s ears go back as a sign of fear. “Her ears will point straight back, her neck disappears, and she doesn’t really have a neck, to begin with, but it disappears, and she just tenses up and waits for it to end.”
Research shows that while humans may fawningly be attracted to animal faces that display an infant-like cuteness, it may be because they trigger a mothering instinct to tend to cats and potentially also those that look more vulnerable, injured, or in distress even when they’re not. Round-faced, big-eyed cats are particularly susceptible to our misguided smothering and as such may possibly end up receiving greater attention from us than they would prefer solely because the exaggerated features we’ve bred into them motivates us to want to attend to them. Conversely, these cute features may also lead us to miss their real signs of distress because it’s that much harder for us to tell they’re in distress by the difference to their usual appearance.
“Potato most often looks like she’s annoyed. Every time we see her walking around, she looks she can’t be bothered by it all. Life is just so tough being her,” Conboy describes. “She’s very dramatic. If she could talk, she would have a lot to say.”