Scientists developing coding systems to read animals’ facial expressions

Click to play video: 'Alberta researchers look at animals’ facial expressions to better understand their emotions'
Alberta researchers look at animals’ facial expressions to better understand their emotions
WATCH ABOVE: Have you ever looked at your pet and wondered, 'what are you thinking?' Well, researchers at the University of Alberta have studied animals' facial expressions to try and better understand their emotions and as Emily Mertz explains, this work could lead to a smartphone app – Jul 12, 2017

*EDITOR’S NOTE: The research was carried out at Massey University in New Zealand. The University of Alberta shared the article since Guesgan was a postdoctoral fellow there last year. She completed her PhD in 2015.

How often have you looked at your pet and wondered: “What are you thinking?”

Researchers hope coding systems of animals’ facial cues will help humans better understand their non-human counterparts.

“The biggest challenge in animal emotion research in general is trying to figure out how they feel when they can’t tell you,” Mirjam Guesgan said. “With people, we can just ask them. But with animals, we have to look at all these other outward expressions of an internal state. One of them is facial expression.”

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The findings may even lead to a smartphone app that would read the faces of pets and livestock and relay their feelings.

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“I think a lot of dog owners already intuitively say: ‘My dog is smiling’ or ‘I can tell when my dog is upset’ so an app would be a fun way to get people to better understand the animals that they live with everyday.”

Guesgan completed her PhD in Animal Welfare at the University of Alberta in March. During her year of study, facial expressions were a hot topic in terms of understanding how animals are feeling.

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“Just like in people, we can read an animal’s emotion on their face. I became interested from a welfare aspect. We really want to know how animals are feeling, both the good and the bad, so we can make sure the conditions they’re living in are ultimately good.”

The coding system will track how different facial features change when an animal feels a particular emotion. It looks at cues like squinting an eye, pursing lips and laying ears back.

Researchers are trying to read more animal facial expressions. Credit: University of Alberta/Mirjam Guesgan

Most of the research so far as been focused on expressions of pain — or grimace scales.

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“Most animals that have been studied show the squinting of the eyes when they’re in pain,” Guesgan said. “A lot of them also show changes in their cheek features. So, depending on the animal, they’ll either puff out their cheeks or they’ll hollow in a little bit.

“A lot of times they’ll show tension in their mouths. If you think of a human pain face, there is quite a lot of overlap.”

Guesgan hopes the focus of study will expand to include more species.

“There’s been a focus on laboratory animals — rats, mice and rabbits — and then a bit of a focus on farm animals. Expanding it to companion animals could be really interesting and potentially also animals that are kept in a zoo environment. It would be really useful to understand how they’re feeling because there’s a big focus on enrichment and creating an environment that the animal is happy with.”

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She also hopes scientists will more closely examine positive feelings and expressions.

“Now we are actually finding that animals can experience positive emotions like joy or curiosity but we really need to put more effort into that side of the research.”

And, while she’d love to see a smartphone app developed, Guesgan admits it would take a coordinated effort from experts in a variety of fields.

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“The struggle with animals is… they might not necessarily sit perfectly still for you so you can get a nice, lined-up image of their face. [There are] all sorts of challenges. If you combine computer scientists and engineers with animal welfare scientists, you could have something really cool happen in terms of an app, potentially.”

Guesgan’s article originally appeared in The Conversation and was later shared on the University of Alberta’s website.

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