Study Looks at Cat Body Language

Just try running a behavioral study on cats. It’s like, well, herding cats.

For the sake of scientific progress, though, a team of Finnish researchers did it anyway, trying to determine: are there reliable ways to tell when cats like food and when they don’t?

Answering this question would make it easier for other researchers to develop pharmaceuticals more palatable to cats. Plus, it might give pet owners some insight into the body language of their feline friends.

In the study, 34 cats were presented with different kinds of food, including the cats’ favored foods and non-favored foods. Observers were then asked to watch video tapes of the cats eating and note the cats’ behavior, without knowing what food the cats had been given.

Altogether, the observers’ reports revealed several differences in how cats acted when they were given foods they liked versus ones they didn’t.

When the cats were eating their non-favored foods, all of the following behaviors were more common:

  • Flicking their ears backward
  • Flicking their tails
  • Licking their noses and not eating (this one seems a little rude, if you ask me!)
  • Grooming their bodies

On the other hand, the following was more common when eating foods they liked:

  • Licking their lips

These findings fit with previous work looking at how cats’ body language predicts their food preferences. For example, research published in 2000 found that cats seemed to more often do the following when they disliked the taste of food:

  • Licking or sniffing the food
  • Licking their noses

By comparison, they appeared to more commonly do the following when they liked the taste of food:

  • Licking or sniffing their feeding bowls
  • Licking their lips
  • Grooming their faces

Overall, cats engage in a variety of behaviors that hint at how they’re enjoying their food. In fact, they’re much less worried about politeness than humans in this regard – for example, my cooking is nothing to write home about, but I’ve never had someone I’ve served a meal to flick their ears at me!

So if you know what to pay attention to, look out for the above signs, and there’s a good chance you’ll be able to tell whether your friendly household cat is enjoying his or her dinner.

Image: Flickr/Treedson Tang