Major new initiative on feline welfare launched by Feline Friends

By Professor Daniel S. Mills BVSc PhD CBiol FSBiol FHEA CCAB Dip ECA WBM(BM) MRCVS

Scientists at the University of Lincoln hope to make a major breakthrough to help alleviate feline suffering thanks to a substantial research award from the Derbyshire based charity Feline Friends. The work is aimed towards the early detection of suffering in cats, by using computer based technology to analyse the facial expressions of pet cats before and after treatment.  

Over recent years leading veterinary behaviourist Professor Daniel Mills at the University of Lincoln, has been developing a clinical technique to help behaviourists identify the emotions of companion animals, while his colleague, computer vision expert Dr Georgios Tzimiropoulos , has been working on the automatic detection of emotions in humans. This project will bring their skills together in a unique way to pick out the subtleties of feline expression.  

Professor Mills explains: “This is a very rare opportunity to systematically explore the emotional aspects of suffering in animals in new ways with a view to developing more efficient early detection mechanisms. At Lincoln, we have always made a special effort to avoid causing animal suffering in our work, and this project will allow us to explore this important subject without inflicting pain on any animal in the process. The multi-disciplinary approach we will be using is ambitious, but has the potential to produce enormous rewards; not just for those interested in feline welfare, but also animal welfare more broadly, as there is no reason why the methods could not be applied to other species once we have cracked the problem.

Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience and, to date, most research has focused on the sensory aspect as we have not had the tools to explore the emotional dimension. Our focus in this project is on this emotional element that relates to the suffering experienced as a result of the pain. So, imagine our cat has a sore leg, we can detect this because he has a limp. This relates to the increase in pain experienced when the leg touches the ground, but the pain also causes this a more general suffering even when the cat is lying down, this is the emotional element of the problem. In my opinion, this is perhaps the more important welfare issue, as the cat can avoid the sensory element by not standing on the leg, but its quality of life is still reduced by the negative emotional consequences of the problem. In the School of Life Sciences, we have been working for a number of years on developing a novel approach to allow the more objective evaluation of emotions in animals using a range of measures including their facial expressions, and we believe these may provide the key to detecting the early signs of suffering in the cat. However, these signs are likely to be very subtle, which is where the computer scientists come in. My colleague Dr Tzimiropoulos in the School of Computer Science has been pioneering the development of self-learning computer vision systems to aid the automatic detection of facial expressions. So, the idea is that by feeding the computer lots of images of cats before and after treatment. It will eventually start to pick out the key features that differentiate the two conditions. We will then validate these predictions, by carefully tracking cases before they are treated. It may be that we can detect not just the presence of pain, but also important markers concerning its severity and possibly even different forms of emotional response, which may be clinically important. Our goal is to help owners detect the signs of suffering earlier than has been possible before, so that they seek veterinary assistance sooner.  The development of resources that can be used by owners and vets is a major part of the project, so we can maximise the impact of our research. We are delighted that Feline Friends has had the courage and vision to make such a substantial investment in this pioneering work. We anticipate the project will take nearly five years to complete, but hope to be making useful contributions from an early stage within the research.”

Prof Daniel Mills and Dr Georgios Tzimiropoulos

Caroline Fawcett, Chairman of Feline Friends commented "Helping owners to better understand their feline companions, and the numerous ailments which beset them, has always been a paramount objective of our charity. Cats are notorious for not showing pain until their suffering becomes unbearable, and this visionary research may open our eyes in such a way that we can take much earlier action to relieve their suffering. The team at Lincoln University have demonstrated to us that they really do care about improving the welfare of our cats; and I believe that if anyone can succeed in breaking through the existing barriers to our knowledge then they can.”

October 2013

"The problem with cats is that they get the exact same look on their faces whether they see a moth or an axe-murderer"

Paula Pound