Cats are amazing creature that have many ways of “talking” beyond words or smiles. While cats don’t smile by showing their teeth or turning the corners of their mouths, like people do when they grin, other behaviors such as purring, slow blinking, and kneading are more reliable ways of telling us a cat is happy.
The truth is human interpretation of a physical “smile” can lead to a lot of misunderstanding. For instance, an open mouth with upturned corners may mean joy to us, but for cats this can signal anything from fear to a desire for sniffing. So while a smile isn’t an indicator of happiness, there are many ways to learn a cat’s body language and facial expressions to find out if they are truly happy.
Here we’ll explore what cats can tell us through facial expressions as well as the many ways cats express happiness.
5 Ways Cats “Smile” to Express Happiness
Some of the facial expressions we spoke of above aren’t necessarily happy, so what other signs do cats use to express happiness?
1. Purring when petted
Purring is generally seen as a sign of happiness and comfort in a cat. A cat who is giving or receiving attention, just had a lovely meal, or is settling in for a nap might purr to express contentment. On the flip side, purring isn’t always a sign of happiness as some cats will also purr when they aren’t feeling good or are scared. Because cats are so great at expressing themselves with body language, it’s usually pretty easy to make this distinction.
2. Slow blinking and narrow eyes
Of all cat expressions, the slow blink is considered to be the equivalent of a human smile. Cats give slow blinks when they are happy and have even been known to respond if you slow blink at them. One 2020 study dove into this body language, studying 21 cats and 14 cat parents at home. They discovered cats would half-blink in response to their person’s slow blinks and were more likely to approach their person when the person slow blinked first.
3. Bunting (aka asking for pets)
Another happy cat behavior that you can take part in, bunting is simply when a kitty gives you a little head-butt or rubs their head against you. Essentially, they are marking you as their territory with the scent glands that live just in front of their ears while saying, “Hey, I like you“.
4. Perching from a vantage point
A cat perched relaxedly on the back of a chair, on a cat tree, or on top of your kitchen cabinets is probably pretty happy. Cats love unique vantage points from which to gaze down upon their wolds and if you have one relaxing in interesting places, it likely means they are very comfortable in, and happy with, their environment.
5. Kneading you or a blanket
Kneading, also known by a multitude of monikers inspired by baking, is an instinctive action that cats carry with them from birth. As kittens, kneading helps to stimulate milk production from mom. As adults, kneading is more of a pleasure-producing activity. Not only does it feel good physically–helping kitties to stretch muscles and ligaments in their lithe legs–but it signifies a kitty who is feeling good mentally.
A Case Of Mistaken Identity: Cat Expressions That Aren’t Smiling
There’s no denying it–a cat’s face is nothing short of magic. That little nose. Those wide eyes. That little pink tongue. Le sigh. But aside from being absolutely adorable, what can cats tell us with their sweet faces? Here are four expressions that you might have spotted on your cat’s face, which could be mistaken for–but aren’t actually–smiles denoting happiness.
1. Resting smile face
Resting Smile Face is basically just a funny term for how most cats’ faces look. Because their mouths turn upwards at the corners cats usually look like they are smiling. Of course there are the “grumpy cats” of the world, but in general a cat’s most expressionless face will look a bit smiley.
2. Flehmen response
Also known as “stinky cat face” the Flehmen Response is the scientific term for the open-mouthed, huffy sniffing cats can sometimes do. This can look like a smile, or even a grimace, but it’s actually just a way for a cat to enhance its sense of smell. Cats (as well as many other animals) have scent receptors on the roofs of their mouths and this open-mouthed huffing is just a way of getting a better of whiff of what’s out there in the world.
3. Teeth baring
Cats will bear their teeth to smell things but also as a warning. Sometimes this can look like a big open-mouthed smile but it’s most likely to mean “back off”.
4. Furrowed brow
When a cat is not happy, many times they will furrow their brow and put their ears back. This can mean they are scared, feeling threatened, or trying to look fierce in the face of adversity.
How Can I Make My Cat Happy?
Let us count the ways…
Get to know your cat
Cats are as individual as snowflakes–no one is like the other. The best thing you can do to ensure your cat’s happiness is to take the time to observe and get to know them. Knowing your cat’s likes, dislikes, and wholly original personality can help you cater to their needs. It also gives them a chance to observe you and figure out how best to wrap you around their toe buds.
Increase bonding time
Taking time every day to have a little bit of quiet time with your cat is important to their happiness. Not only does it reinforce your bond but it also helps a kitty’s sense of security and allows them to time to give, and receive, love.
Schedule focused play time
Making an effort to spend time playing with your cat every day can go a long way in terms of the physical health but it is also mentally stimulating. You help scratch the itch of their instinctive needs to both hunt and play, and also establish yourself as a play-buddy; further strengthening your mutual bond. Some people even say that play with cats can release dopamine in the human brain so making this effort goes a long way for you as well!
Make sure they get quality food
Choosing a healthy cat food diet and feeding routine for your cat will help to keep them active and healthy–and an active, healthy, secure cat is a surely to be a happy cat.
Have treats and catnip on hand
Respect your cat’s boundaries and space
If you truly know your cat you will know what their boundaries are. Some cats like belly rubs, others do not. If you know your cat isn’t a fan of something just don’t do it. Cats are very unlikely to change themselves to please you. If you have a cat that needs some space away for quiet time, and prefers under the bed or the closet, be sure to give them access to places they can relax without worry. Just letting a cat be their own cat is a great path to cat happiness.
Is It A Good Idea to Smile At My Cat?
Just like with people, a smile is only as good as the intent behind it.
A secure kitty will likely have little reaction to the faces you make whether you are smiling or frowning. If you are smiling while giving some slow blinks to your kitty (because it’s pretty much impossible to give slow blinks and not smile), they might respond with similar intent–giving some slow blinks, or even a bunt, back. A happy kitty knows you are the one they are bonded to and trusts you completely. And this is a beautiful thing.
If you have a new kitty in your home or a cat who is timid or frightened a smile might be your reminder to be calm and gentle with the noises and actions you make. Cats who have not yet bonded to someone, or are not feeling fully safe, will likely be frightened by loud voices and quick movements. Keeping a smile on your face can help ensure you keep the gentlest of demeanour as you get to know your cat–or help him feel secure enough to break out of his shell.
All this said, if you walk up to a cat (even your sweetest long-time love bug) and squint your eyes, bare your teeth, and make a hiss-y noise at them, you might well get back just what you give. Not a good idea for anyone. Keep those smiles positive!
Smiling is the way we connect to others–and this can include our cats. Though they might not be smiling back at us, there are a multitude of ways they can tell us they are happy. Lucky for us these are pretty easy to discern, support, and take part in.