Some animals don’t take kindly to direct eye contact. If you want to look a bull straight in the eye, you’d better be quick on your feet. While you may think you’re being nice and sociable, the bull (and a fair few other animals as well) will take your unwavering stare as an overt sign of aggression. With other animals, it could go either way. Wolves and wild dogs will usually think you’re trying to establish dominance: if you’re bigger than them, they’ll probably feel uncomfortable; if you’re smaller, prepare for some heat. Domesticated dogs are likely to feel the same in certain situations, but can be trained to react differently – if you tend to give them a long loving look before treating them to a tasty titbit, they probably associate your stares less with dominance and more with food. Which in the canine world, is always A Good Thing.
But what about cats? They may be second only to dogs when it comes to pet popularity, but for whatever reason, we seem to know less about their psychology than we do canines. So, what does a cat feel when you look it in the eye? Do they prefer one type of eye contact over another? Will they respond in a positive way to one type of look, but with claws and spit to another type? In an effort to explore the relatively unchartered territory of cat psychology, a group of researchers joined forces in an attempt to uncover how cats respond to different facial expressions. Their conclusions may not be ground breaking for the rest of the world, but for cat lovers, they could well signal the start of a new and improved communication between cats and humans. The secret to it all? Blinking slowly…
For years, cat owners have been saying that slow blinking at cats results in a more positive response than other facial expressions. In a study titled ‘The role of cat eye narrowing movements in cat–human communication’ published in Nature, a team of scientists from the University of Sussex and University of Portsmouth led by Karen McComb and Leanne Proops set out to uncover the truth behind the story. They started by finding two dozen cats, all with healthy eyesight. For the first experiment, they observed the behaviors of 21 cats (11 of which were female, 10 of which were male, and all of whom were aged between .45 years and 16 years in age) in their homes.
Once the cats had found a comfortable spot, their owners were asked to sit or crouch about a meter away. Once both parties were settled, the owners began narrowing their eyes in a slow blink. The cat’s reactions were duly noted. In the second experiment, 24 cats consisting of 12 females and 12 males aged between 1–17 years old were monitored. This time around, one of the researchers sat across from the cat to record how they’d react when they adopted a neutral expression versus a slow blink. To further test the different reactions, the researchers extended a hand, palm upwards, towards the cat in a welcoming gesture while alternating between a neutral expression and a slow blink.
Once the experiments had been completed, the researchers re-grouped to gather their conclusions. The results were conclusive. When a cat was offered a slow blink by their owner, they responded in kind. When an experimenter extended the hand of friendship, the cat was more likely to approach them if they were slow blinking than if they adopted a neutral expression. The studied cats, it seemed, took the slow blink as a friendly smile, becoming more responsive and friendlier when it was offered than when it wasn’t. But what does this mean on a wider basis? Should we all be blinking slowly at our cats if we want to make friends? Very likely, yes.
“As someone who has studied animal behavior and is also a cat owner,” McComb says via bigthink.com, “it’s great to show how cats and humans can communicate.” “This study is the first to investigate the role of slow blinking in communication,” she adds. “And it’s something you can try with your own cat. It’s a good way of enhancing your bond. Narrow your eyes at them like you would in a relaxed smile, then close your eyes for a couple of seconds. You’ll find they respond in the same way and you can start a conversation.”
Learned or Innate?
That cats respond positively to slow blinking seems to be without doubt. It’s something that’s been posited by thousands of cat owners for years, and something that the latest study seems to prove once and for all. But whether it’s an innate characteristic or a learned skill is something that’s still up for debate. Cats have been living alongside us for hundreds of years, and while it’s not been domestic bliss all the way (you can take the cat out of the wild, but you can never quite take the wild out of the cat, after all), we’ve managed to get by in (relative) harmony. A large part of that is down to how cats have adopted certain behaviors to communicate with us. Purring, scent sharing, head butting… all of these have been modified to get our attention in the best possible way. As sciencealert.com notes, it could well be that cats have developed their slow blink behaviors because we see slow blinking as positive and reward it in a positive way.
The Wider Implications
Regardless of whether the ‘cat smile’ is an innate talent or an acquired trick, the implications extend far beyond simply improving the bond people have with their individual cats. As one of the researchers, Tasmin Humphrey notes, “Understanding positive ways that cats and humans interact can enhance feline welfare and tell us more about the socio-cognitive abilities of the species.” Not only does this spell positive things for cats in shelters, it could also make that next trip to the vets much more pleasant than it would be otherwise.