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Is Your Cat Judging You?

That disapproving sneer is actually the “Flehmen response.” A cat behaviorist explains how to read cats’ lips.

by Charles Manning
March 15, 2022
a cat making a strange face with its mouth open.
Chalit Saphaphak / Stocksy

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Do you ever look at your cat and think for sure that they’re judging you? Like, you’re laying on the couch, having not changed your clothes in three days, food delivery detritus scattered around, and you glance across the room at your cat and they’re just staring at you. Their eyes are narrowed and they’ve got what definitely looks like a sneer of disapproval curling at their lips.

So you get all self conscious, sit up straight, and are all, “What, Luna? It’s called self-care! Besides, Netflix just raised their prices, so if I want to get the same value-per-dollar that I was before, I need to watch more shows...” Of course, you know the only things Luna really cares about are having a clean litter box and full food bowl. But that face! It’s got to mean something, right? Especially the mouth. Those lips. They’re thin, but very expressive.

“Cats do have the ability to make different facial expressions, but they do not necessarily mean what we might think,” says cat behavior consultant and The Wildest Collective member Cristin Tamburo. “According to a recent study, most humans are not very good at reading or interpreting cat facial expressions. While many cats may give us the impression that they are judging us, they are probably just staring contently.”

What about when their mouth is hanging open in disbelief?

“Some cats just forget that they have their mouths open — one of my cats is always leaving her little tongue out after bathing. It doesn’t mean anything,” assures Tamburo.

And when their mouths are open and they are sort of pulling their upper lips back? That definitely feels judgy. 

“That’s what’s called the Flehmen response,” says Tamburo. “Lots of animals do it, but in cats it sort of looks like a grimace. It’s a way for them to gather more information about something by combining both taste and smell.”

What about when their mouths are open, their whiskers are trembling, and they’re making those weird growly noises that sound like they are talking about you under their breath?

“Most cats will chatter when they are intrigued by some sort of prey — a bird or squirrel outside the window — but some will do it over toys as well,” says Tamburo. “There is generally a chattering or chirping noise that accompanies these ’trembling’ whiskers. You may also notice other body language changes in their posture, eyes, and ears. It’s not totally understood why they do this, but it is probably out of excitement or frustration.”

So they’re not judging me. Okay. Any other lip-reading tips, like, when they look like they’re smiling? Are cats even capable of smiling or am I just projecting again?

“Technically, yes, cats can smile,” says Tamburo, “but many of their facial expressions are more about fear, aggression, or pain than ‘happiness.’ I will say, though, that I have seen my cats make very contented, relaxed faces that can sort of look like a smile — almost like they are in a trance — and that is definitely a positive expression. Sometimes they even drool.”

Well, Luna doesn’t drool, but the other day, when I was working out in my living room, she was jumping around and sort of panting and I swear she was mocking me.

“Some cats will actually pant after or during a really good play session,” says Tamburo. “They can get out of breath just like humans, especially if they are overweight. If you do notice your cat panting during a play session, give them a little break to allow them to relax. Chances are, after a few seconds they’ll be ready for more!”

So, I shouldn’t worry?

“If this happens often, definitely get your cat to the vet,” says Tamburo. “Open-mouth breathing can signify medical issues, some of which can be severe, such as cold or upper respiratory infection, asthma or other lung issues, choking, seizures, heart failure.”

Well that took a dark turn. But okay, messages received: my cat’s mouth is not a tool they use to express their disdain for my life choices and if I notice panting outside of heavy activity or play time, I’ll take them to the vet right away. Cool cool cool. 

I still think Luna’s judging me, though. She has an energy. 

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Charles Manning

Charles Manning is an actor, writer, and fashion/media consultant living in New York City with his two cats, Pumpkin and Bear. Follow him on Instagram @charlesemanning.