KU medical student publishes study on feline facial expressions
As an undergraduate anthropology major at UCLA, Lauren Scott found that domestic cats have 276 unique facial expressions they use to communicate with each other.
When Lauren Scott decided that she wanted to be a doctor, she never envisioned that studying cat faces would be part of her career path.
Yet that’s what happened. In October, Scott, who is a first-year medical student at the University of Kansas School of Medicine, published a study in the journal Behavioural Processes showing that domestic cats have nearly 300 distinct facial expressions they use to communicate with each other. The research has been widely reported in numerous publications including Science magazine, Smithsonian magazine, the Washington Post and National Geographic.
Scott, who has never owned a cat, did the study when she was undergraduate anthropology major at UCLA, where she worked under Brittany Florkiewicz, Ph.D., who was then a doctoral candidate. Beginning in 2021, Scott spent nearly a year video recording 53 adult shorthair felines at a cat café in Los Angeles, which agreed to let them conduct their research there.
She and Florkiewicz analyzed 194 minutes of footage using the Animal Facial Action Coding System, which is a standardized tool through which researchers can identify specific and subtle muscle movements in faces. They looked at both the number of and types of different facial movements, which included ear positions, blinking (and half-blinking), nose licking and wrinkling, eye closing, and whisker movements, among others.
“Even though the individual expressions themselves weren't very complex — meaning that they didn’t have a dozen different movements making up one expression — there was a wide variety of different expressions,” she said.
276, to be exact. These distinct expressions, made up of combinations of facial movements, correspond to different social functions, which are likely influenced by domestication. Cats, often misunderstood to be aloof and anti-social creatures, appear to have remarkable social skills and ability to adapt.
Scott’s interest in anthropology did not originate in animal communication. It began when she was a high school student in Leawood, Kansas, and she was assigned to read “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder’s book about Paul Farmer, M.D., Ph.D., the American physician and medical anthropologist who treated people in some of the most impoverished parts of the world.
Scott already knew she wanted to be a doctor and had planned to major in microbiology or biochemistry in college but reading about Farmer’s work shifted her focus. “I learned what anthropology was, and medical anthropology specifically,” she said. “Just the idea that there are systems in place that affect people's access to medicine and health care — and contribute to inequalities in health care in the United States and across the world — was a perspective I had never heard before. It expanded my worldview.”
Scott chose UCLA for her undergraduate years because it offered a Bachelor of Science degree in anthropology, rather than a Bachelor of Arts, and would include many of the courses she would also need as a pre-med student. While at UCLA, she became interested in biological anthropology and started assisting Florkiewicz on chimpanzee research at the Los Angeles Zoo. “I helped comb through hours and hours of footage of chimpanzee interactions,” Scott said. “And that's how I learned the whole facial-action coding system.”
After the chimpanzee research was completed, Florkiewicz and Scott decided to conduct similar research on cats. Interactions between cats and humans had been studied, but little research had been done on how cats communicate with each other. Their research can be used by pet owners and shelters to increase the likelihood of successful bonding between domesticated cats.
Scott’s days of studying cats are likely over, she says, but she believes that her feline research helped her land a research position in a laboratory studying cancer immunology at UCLA’s medical school after graduating. “In the [cat] study, I did all the data collection and editing and made this whole dataset. I was able to work well as part of a team, but also work independently, and I think that helped me a lot,” she said.
Scott says she chose KU for medical school because she wanted to be closer to her family and because of the curriculum. “To be a good doctor, you have to understand structural inequalities and how to deal with a diverse patient population, and I wanted to be prepared in that way,” she said. “I knew I wanted to choose a medical school that valued that in their curriculum, and I think KU does a really great job of incorporating that.”
Scott also wants to continue to do research, in oncology. If she ends up with a successful career in cancer research, she just might have some furry felines to thank. “I’d never thought of research being part of my career,” said Scott. “But now? Absolutely.”