Doug Bonderud

Jul 29th 2020

Once More, With Fur-ling: Do Animals Have Facial Expressions?


More than 84 million Americans own pets, and they’re spending $95 billion on food, treats, supplies and vet care every year. Talk to most owners and it’s clear this cash outlay is tied to care — pets are part of the family and provide a fundamental, emotional bond.

So it’s no surprise that we’ve often wondered if our four-legged, furry friends feel the same things — and express them the same way — as their human housemates. So let’s settle the debate once and for all: Do animals have facial expressions? Do animals experience the same emotions as humans?

Emotional Impact

The worst case scenario for animal-loving humans hoping for a shared emotional bond? That pet-based emotional permutations don’t match our own experience — what if our creature companions are just playing along for food, treats or belly rubs?

As noted by the Greater Good Magazine from UC Berkeley, there’s almost certainly some continuity across the feeling framework. Research with chimpanzees revealed gestures designed to comfort dying elders and sooth crying infants. In one case, primatologist Frans de Waal taught a young female chimpanzee how to bottle-feed and burp her baby when she couldn’t produce enough milk.

Research from the University of Lincoln, meanwhile, found that dogs are not only able to differentiate between emotional states in humans, but can also recognize specific emotions by combining visual and auditory cues. To test their capacity for emotional recognition, dogs were shown angry or happy facial expressions and played audio clips of similarly pleased or annoyed human beings — but the two cues didn’t always match. The team discovered that dogs spent “significantly longer” looking at facial expressions when sight and sound aligned. The research team puts it simply: “Our study shows that dogs have the ability to integrate two different sources of sensory information into a coherent perception of emotion in both humans and dogs.”

Pets can also communicate emotions with relative ease — dogs are often seen slouching down and looking at the floor after being scolded, indicating guilt, while cats are thought to display feelings of contentment when curled up and purring on their owner’s lap. This is where emotional waters get murky, however; while emotions are described by de Waal as “bodily and mental states,” feelings are “internal subjective states.” In other words, while animals have evolved to recognize and respond to human experience with appropriate emotional responses, it’s impossible to know exactly how they feel.

Face the Music

Emotions are one thing, but do animals have facial expressions? And if so, are they analogous to our own? The answer is simple: sort of.

As noted by Quartz, researchers have reliably identified signs of pain recognition in mice, rats, rabbits, horses and sheep because they have a similar “pain face” — tightened eyes, flattened cheeks and tensed mouths. According to The Scientist, meanwhile, recent AI work was able to decode seven specific facial expressions in mice including disgust, pleasure, pain, fear, sickness and flight. They’re very similar — probably not something you’d notice at a glance — but they suggest a certain commonality to creature facial functions.

Cats also have facial expressions but as noted by The Washington Post, an online survey found that humans aren’t so hot at connecting emotional dots. The survey featured close-up videos of cat faces without any sound and asked participants to classify the expression as positive or negative. Just 13% of test-takers scored over 75% — the average score was under 60%.

There’s also evidence that different animals — such as dogs and horses — share common facial expressions when playing, even when people aren’t present. According to Discover, dogs and horses both displayed the relaxed, open-mouthed expression common among mammals when playing and “rapidly imitated each other’s facial expressions, the first time such mimicry was seen between species.” This expression equivalence helps reduce the chances of misconstrued intent and avoids potential displays of aggression.

The Eyes Have It

When it comes to facial expressions, it’s also worth pointing out a particular quirk found in our canine companions: puppy dog eyes. Famous for melting hearts, these arched eyebrows and wide gazes make dogs seem like cute human infants and tap into our natural predisposition to protect such sweet creatures.

But it turns out pups may not be quite so precious after all. As noted by a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), “Domestication transformed the facial muscle anatomy of dogs specifically for facial communication with humans.” When the musculature of dog and wolf heads were compared, researchers found that domesticated dogs had developed an eyebrow muscle specifically designed to deliver a devastating puppy face — and get exactly what they want.

All the Feels

Do animals experience the same emotions as humans?

It’s more accurate to say that animals have evolved to recognize and respond to human emotions and facial expressions by displaying behavior we associate with specific states of feeling. While it’s not a perfect match, it’s close enough to count — although we can’t ask cats, dogs, birds or bunnies exactly how they feel about their two-legged friends, their interest in learning our emotional tells and creating key connections make them both sensitive and steadfast companions.