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Can Cats Smile? Not in Ways You'd Expect
CatsBehavior

Can Cats Smile? Not in Ways You'd Expect

Critter Culture Staff
Updated Jun 13, 2022

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Ever wonder if your cat is happy? Most people know cats purr when they're content, but more often than not, your feline friend's true feelings can feel like a mystery.

Although cats have a reputation for being hard to figure out, they are incredibly expressive creatures. They may not convey their emotions exactly the way humans do, but your cat lets you know their true feelings from the top of their head to the tip of their tail.

1

Do cats smile?

cat smiling

Cats have all the right facial muscles to make expressions that look like smiling, but it has nothing to do with happiness. You're likely witnessing the Flehmen Response when you see a cat opening its mouth and baring its teeth after sniffing something. Certain pheromone-rich odors can trigger this reaction, which draws scent particles to the roof of the mouth to be analyzed by a sensory receptor known as the Jacobson's organ. Other animals, like horses and goats, also have this response.

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2

What does a cat "smile" look like?

cat blinking

Cats don't smile with their mouths to express happiness — but they do use their eyes! If you want to know if your cat is happy, keep your eyes peeled for the subtle "slow blink." If your cat makes eye contact with you and shuts its eyes, slowly opens them, then shuts them again, that's the equivalent of a warm smile. In the wild, felines never close their eyes while making eye contact if they feel in any way threatened. By doing so with you, they're showing how much they love and trust you.

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3

How to smile back at a cat

man lying on bed with his cat and looking at each other Kilito Chan / Getty Images

Studies have shown when humans slow-blink to "smile" at cats, they get the message. You can try this at home while you and your feline friend are chilling out together. With your eyes relaxed and narrow, make eye contact with your cat, then slowly lower your lids. When you raise them again, you may notice your cat is doing the same right back at you. Doing this regularly will strengthen your bond with one another.

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4

Vocal clues

Black kitten sitting on cushion meowing. Suzanne Marshall / Getty Images

If your cat is happy, they'll let you know it, sometimes loudly. In fact, you may never hear the end of it! Cats almost never meow at other cats. They only vocalize to their mothers as kittens and usually grow out of the habit once they've left the litter. A confident, happy adult cat will meow at you because they regard you as their oversized parent of sorts. If you enjoy these conversations, you can encourage your cat to become a regular chatterbox by meowing back at them.

Note that a quiet cat is not necessarily an unhappy cat. Like people, some cats are naturally quieter than others. They'll express their contentment in other ways.

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5

High-tailing it

grey cat fotodrobik / Getty Images

Cats use the position of their tails to communicate their feelings. A tail gently curled at the top in the shape of a question mark is the sign of a happy cat. If your cat walks by you and lifts its tail straight up, that's a friendly greeting. Cats only raise their tails when they're among their most trusted companions, so take it as a compliment when they're high-tailing it around you.

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6

Impeccable grooming

grey cat lies on the floor on licks its paws FaST_9 / Getty Images

Cats who love life spend a large chunk of their waking hours grooming themselves. Your cat may even try to groom you. Bottom line: if your kitty's walking around looking sharp, you can rest assured they're feeling pretty good about things. Poor grooming is one of the more obvious signs of an unhappy cat and can be an early indication of illness or injury.

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7

Playtime, anytime

Young woman playing on the bed with her cat PhotoAttractive / Getty Images

Everyone knows kittens are playful, but adult cats are more than happy to join in on the fun when the opportunity presents itself. Coaxing your cat with feather dusters, jingle balls, fishing pole toys, and even a long piece of string can bring out even the laziest layabout's playful side. Unhappy cats lack the energy or desire to unleash their inner wildcat, so keep your eye on a listless cat who has lost interest in hunting, chasing toys, or wrestling with their housemate.

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8

The roly-polys

cat lying on its back on a windowsill kosobu / Getty Images

If you've ever witnessed your cat suddenly throwing themselves on the ground in your presence and exposing their belly like a flipped-over turtle, they're greeting you with utmost adoration. A cat's soft underbelly is the most vulnerable part of its body, so Mr. Whiskers wouldn't do that if he didn't feel perfectly safe and content around you. Warning: Although it may look like they're begging for a belly rub, the opposite is true! Unlike dogs, cats typically don't like their tummies touched at all. It's more of a symbolic gesture than an invitation.

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9

Head bunts

Woman pet owner cuddling with cat IvanJekic / Getty Images

If your cat has ever bumped or rubbed their head up against you, congratulations — they love you, and you are now their territory. Cats only head-bunt those they feel strongly connected to. Your cat has scent glands around their ears that release an odor that's undetectable to humans but signals to other cats that you belong to someone. You might also catch your cat happily bumping their head against everything that crosses their path. That just means they're feeling like the king — or queen — of their castle and on top of the world.

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10

"Making biscuits"

cat paws

A cat who feels well-loved will "knead" a soft surface, including their favorite human, before settling in for a cat nap. These up-and-down paw presses, also called "making biscuits," hearken back to their kitten days, when they would knead their paws against themother'sr’s underbelly to stimulate milk production. If your cat is still kneading as an adult that's a clear indication that they feel as safe and happy as they did when they were snuggled up with their littermates.

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