Scientists at the University of Lincoln hope to make a major breakthrough to help alleviate feline suffering following the award of a research grant of nearly £400,000.
Derbyshire-based charity Feline Friends donated the funds for research aimed at 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, UK, 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 said: “This is a 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. The multidisciplinary 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 the methods we will be developing could be applied to any species.”
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. The idea is that by feeding the computer images of cats before and after treatment it will eventually start to pick out the key features that differentiate the two conditions.
This award will allow academics from the different disciplines to combine their expertise to explore emotional expression in cats, which will potentially allow them to objectively define different forms of suffering.
The aim is to detect earlier and possibly more subtle signs than has been possible before, so that owners seek veterinary assistance sooner. No cats will be harmed during the course of the research.
Professor Mills added: “The translation of our findings into a usable resource 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.”
Caroline Fawcett, of the charity Feline Friends, added: “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 the University of Lincoln has 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.”