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What's On Their Mind? Understanding Eye Contact in Cats.

Updated: Jun 27, 2023

In humans, staring or prolonged eye contact usually means we’re giving someone our full undivided attention, and it’s seen as a sign of respect. Our feline friends, however, view eye contact a bit differently. From staring, blinking, and even to the dilation of their pupils, cats rely heavily on their eyes to communicate with humans and other cats alike.


When Your Stare At Your Cat:

Cats can be very self-conscious creatures; when they are aware they’re being watched they will assess if there is a threat. Depending on the outcome of their analysis, they will then resume their previous activity in a more self-conscious way or stop what they’re doing altogether. While we consider eye contact friendly, our pets view it as assertive, threatening, and intimidating. This is why if you’re trying to get your cat’s attention by calling their name and looking in their direction, the cat may choose to ignore you completely. They will be more likely to approach someone who is not paying attention to them because they view them as less of a threat.


Prolonged Eye Contact With You:

If your cat is making prolonged eye contact with you or staring at you, it can mean several things. First check if their eyes are completely open or not.


Fully open eyes:

  • The cat is giving something its attention

  • The cat is alert

Cats open their eyes wide when they are alert and assessing their surroundings. Exposing wide-open eyes to potential injury can be a sign of trust. However, cats that stare unblinking from a distance can do so out of control, dominance, or aggression.


Half-closed eyes:

  • The cat is sleepy or content

  • Your cat may trust you

If your cat is staring at you with half-closed eyes, this is a sign that they’re comfortable being vulnerable around you. For cats, closing their eyes is the ultimate sign of trust. Cats will also sometimes open and close one eye while drifting in or out of sleep; this is a means of watching for predators.

If your cat makes eye contact without meaning it as a threat, they may blink and narrow their eyes to reassure you they’re not intending to be aggressive. Cats can also stare at you because they find what you’re doing interesting or they think they might get a treat.


Staring At Other Cats:

As previously mentioned, direct eye contact is considered intimidating for cats. When a cat notices another cat staring at them, they both stop everything and begin a staring match. If one of them blinks, it signals that they’ve given in, and the one staring is deemed dominant. If neither blinks, the confrontation turns into swatting at each other or fighting.


The Slow Blink or Wink:

When a cat offers a slow wink or blink as a greeting, this is a sign of affection. Some owners have even called this the equivalent of a kiss in kitty language! Try blinking back at your cat next time they do this. By doing so you communicate that you are not a threat and they can trust you. Some cats may return the blink, and others may not. Each cat is different, and for some kitties, blinks simply aren’t how they express their love.


What The Pupils Mean:

A cat’s pupils will respond to light, with both pupils dilating in dim light and constricting in bright light. However, their pupils can also tell us a lot more than how much light is in a room. They are great indicators of how a cat is feeling in a particular moment.


Dilated or Expanded Pupils

  • Fear or aggressive excitement

  • Nervous or submissive

  • Excitement to see owner, feline friend, food, toy, etc.

If a cat becomes scared, nervous, or excited its pupils will expand. Pupils dilate most often when a cat is excited. When dilated, the pupils take in visual information to help the cat survey the scene.


Constricted/Narrowed Pupils:

  • Angry

  • Confident

  • Content/calm

In a cat who is angry or aroused, the pupils may become narrowed or constricted to focus more intently on detail. Any strong emotional arousal such as fear, anger, pleasure, or even excitement, can result in sudden contraction of pupils.


Teaching Your Cat Eye Contact?

If you want your cat to look at you, your family, and the veterinarian on command, you can teach your cat to make eye contact! Pairing eye contact with verbal cues and consistent positive rewards can help your cat feel more comfortable looking at people. Using a lure like a treat or toy followed by a positive reward can also make your cat look in your direction. Reinforcing this behavior over time shows your cat that making eye contact doesn’t have to be a negative experience. This is especially helpful for aggressive cats who view direct eye contact as a threat and will lash out at their owners.


Wrapping It Up

Cats’ eyes can tell you a lot about what they’re thinking and feeling. Remember, every cat expresses their emotions differently, and one cat’s expression of love can mean aggression from another. However, these guidelines should provide some help in determining your cat’s mood, how to make them feel more comfortable around you, and how to finally give them a kiss in a language they understand!



Sources:

-Bishko, Adriane. “Cat Communication: What Your Cat's Body Language Says.” WebMD, WebMD, 21 Apr. 2012, https://pets.webmd.com/cats/features/cat-body-language#2

-Shojai, Amy. “Understanding the Eyes of a Cat.” The Spruce Pets, 9 Sept. 2019, https://www.thesprucepets.com/cat-talk-eyes-553942

-Becker, Mikkel. “Teach Your Cat to Make Eye Contact.” Vet Street, 19 Apr. 2016, http://www.vetstreet.com/our-pet-experts/teach-your-cat-to-make-eye-contact

-Carver, Leslie. “How Do Cats Know to Make Eye Contact?” The Nest, https://pets.thenest.com/cats-make-eye-contact-10872.html

-Bailey , Angie. “Is Your Cat Staring at You? What It Means in Cat Language.” Catster, 29 Dec. 2019, https://www.catster.com/cat-behavior/cat-staring-what-it-means-in-cat-language



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