Computer vision expert Dr Georgios Tzimiropoulos, from the University of Lincoln, UK, has been pioneering the development of self-learning computer vision systems to aid the automatic detection of facial expressions.
Although the focus has been on humans, the technology will now be used to explore emotional expression in cats.
Derbyshire-based charity Feline Friends donated almost £400,000 for the research, which is aimed at detecting suffering earlier and possibly more subtle signs than has previously been possible, so that owners seek veterinary assistance sooner.
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.
Dr Tzimiropoulos will work with leading veterinary behaviourist Professor Daniel Mills, from the School of Life Sciences, who has been developing a clinical technique to help behaviourists identify the emotions of companion animals.
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.
“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.”