When it comes to communicating with your cat, the eyes have it
‘How can I communicate with my cat?’ is a question asked by every feline guardian at some point. Well, when it comes to the mysterious task of understanding cat language, focusing on one of a feline’s most appealing features – their captivatingly beautiful eyes – could be the key.
Compared to another popular pet – the dog – the socio-cognitive abilities of cats (essentially how they process, store, and apply information) are an under-studied area and there’s a lot that even top cat behaviour experts don’t know – but they’re working on it.
A new study entitled The role of cat eye narrowing movements in cat-human communication, is the first to investigate cat slow blinking as a means of understanding cat communication with humans.
Cat slow blinking – sometimes known as the cat smile or cat kiss – is typically a series of half blinks followed by narrowing the eyes or closing them. This behaviour, particularly a narrowing of the eyes, features in positive emotional displays from other species and even in humans.
Professor Karen McComb, from the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex, who supervised the research, said: “As someone who has both studied animal behaviour and is a cat owner, it’s great to be able to show that cats and humans can communicate in this way. It’s something that many cat owners had already suspected, so it’s exciting to have found evidence for it.”
The cat blink/no blink experiment
This is what the researchers did and what they discovered:
- 21 cats from 14 different households were examined to see if they responded to human initiated slow blink stimuli with slow blink sequences themselves
- The experiment took place in the cat’s own homes and their owners initiated the slow blinking
The result: In this experiment, the rate of eye narrowing in the cats was significantly higher in response to the slow blink stimulus than in the control condition where their owner gave no slow blinking stimulus.
- 24 additional cats from eight different households were observed to determine whether they were more likely to approach a researcher, who was unfamiliar to the cat, in response to slow blinking or a neutral face
The result: In this experiment found that cats were more likely to approach an experimenter if they used slow blink sequences compared to when experimenters used a neutral expression.
- The results of both studies showed that slow blinking can provide a form of positive communication between cats and humans
- The study also found that both owners and unknown experimenters were more likely to elicit a slow blink sequence from the cats if they slow blinked themselves, rather than when they maintained a neutral expression
For professional cat carers, this is an exciting development to enhance how they work with and interact with cats. In particular, the finding that reveals a positive response can be elicited by people unknown to the cat. This suggests that slow blinking can be used, for example, in homing centres and veterinary clinics, to help build a rapport and create positive relationships, particularly with cats that may find the presence of people difficult.
Dr Leanne Proops at the University of Portsmouth, who co-supervised the work, said: “It's definitely not easy to study natural cat behaviour so these results provide a rare insight into the world of cat-human communication.”
Start a conversation with your cat
And, of course, slow blinking is something that you can use with your own cat as a way of greeting them and speaking cat language.
Professor Karen McComb adds: “This study is the first to experimentally investigate the role of slow blinking in cat–human communication and it is something you can try yourself with your own cat at home, or with cats you meet in the street. It’s a great way of enhancing the bond you have with cats. Try narrowing your eyes at them as you would in a relaxed smile, followed by closing your eyes for a couple of seconds. You’ll find they respond in the same way themselves and you can start a sort of conversation.”
More interesting stuff about cat communication...
Why your cat meows just for you
Cats use a combination of scent signals, body postures and vocalisations to communicate.
And, although kittens meow to their mothers, adult cats don’t meow to other cats – probably because their mothers stopped responding once they were weaned. Fully grown felines reserve this vocalisation purely to communicate with humans.
“Cats vocalise so well to us because they’ve learned that we humans are really not all that on the ball in figuring out what the tail swish means, what the ear twitch means,” says Gary Weitzman, president and CEO of the San Diego Humane Society and author of How to Speak Cat.
And of course our cats know that meowing is a strategy that works. Essentially, meows are demands: Let me OUT. Let me IN. PET me. PLAY with me. FEED me! As a cat becomes more insistent, their meows may grow more strident and lower-pitched until they get the response they requires from their human. Sound familiar?
Chatty cats who have plenty to say
Not all cats are vocal. Persians tend to be rather quiet, whereas Siamese and Oriental-type breeds are especially talkative, enjoying long, drawn-out conversations where they insist on having the last word.
Whether your cat is constantly chatty, or just likes to chip in now and again, remember that they are meowing for a reason. Never dismiss a cat’s meow. After all, domestic cats have spent thousands of years cultivating meowing to better communicate with their human friends, so it’s only fair that we pay attention.
Here’s what (we think) our cats are saying...
- Hello human Cats often give a verbal greeting to their human guardian when they come home, or even when they just meet them in the house
- I require some attention Despite what some people think, cats don’t like being alone too much. Cats often meow to initiate play, petting, or to get you to talk to them.
- I’m finding things stressful Cats that are experiencing stress often become more vocal. A new pet or baby, a move or changes to the home, an illness or the loss of a loved one can turn a quiet cat into a talker. Try to discover what is stressing your pet and help them adjust to the change by giving them extra attention and quiet time to soothe them
- I’m feeling frisky If your cat isn’t spayed or neutered, then you’re going to hear a lot more noise. Females yowl when in heat, and males yowl when they smell a female in heat. Getting your pet neutered will prevent this
- I’m getting on a bit Cats, just like people, can suffer from deteriorating eyesight, mental confusion, or cognitive dysfunction, as they age. They may become disoriented and cry plaintively for no apparent reason, especially at night. Your vet can prescribe medications that help with these symptoms. Hearing loss can also cause a cat to be louder than usual because they can’t determine just how much noise they’re making
- I’m not feeling well There are numerous diseases that can cause a cat to feel hunger, thirst or pain, including overactive thyroid or kidney disease, which can result in excessive meowing. If your cat exhibits this behaviour, take them to the vet for a thorough check-up
Would you like to get into the mind of your cat, to understand why they behave as they do and how you can best provide for their behavioural needs? Feline welfare charity, International Cat Care, has an online Introduction to Feline Behaviour course, which is built on the most up to date knowledge from leading cat behaviour experts and is available to all cat owners and feline enthusiasts.
Is your cat a Burgess cat? Join the Burgess Pet Club exclusive offers and rewards.
Cats are ‘obligate’ or ‘true carnivores’, which means they must eat meat to survive and thrive. Obligate carnivores require nutrients found only in animal flesh and, while they might be able to ingest small amounts of plant matter, they’re not able to fully digest it.
- Cats have a very specialised digestion, with a small intestine that’s only about three times the length of their body.
- Their stomach secretes digestive juices that act primarily on meat.
- As strict carnivores, cats have high protein requirements and their metabolism appears unable to make essential nutrients such as retinol (Vitamin A), arginine (an amino acid), taurine (an organic compound found in animal tissue) and arachidonic acid (a polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acid).
- In order to get these essential nutrients, a cat has to eat meat.
The optimum diet for your cat is one that supplies the correct number of calories and balance of nutrients for their size, life stage and lifestyle. This means calculating the nutrient content and dietary components such as protein, fat, carbohydrate and vitamins and minerals required. This is what our expert team of nutritionists do when we create our delicious recipes. Burgess Cat Food is a complete food. This means, whatever variety you choose for your cat, it will contain all the nutrients they need in the correct balance.
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Source: The role of cat eye narrowing movements in cat-human communication by Tasmin Humphrey, Leanne Proops, Jemma Forman, Rebecca Spooner and Karen McComb published in Scientific Reports