Cats communicate with us in a variety of ways. They often purr when they’re in a good mood, for instance, and sometimes they’ll rub or butt their heads against us if we feel sad. (It’s called bunting.) We communicate with them, too. When we feed and play with them and stroke them, we are expressing our affection. But new research suggests it’s actually possible to have a “conversation” with our feline pets through eye blinking.
It’s already known that cats blink languidly at us when they feel comfortable and relaxed in our presence. If they were uncomfortable, they’d hold a steady gaze rather than let their eyes close in order to keep watch and also let us know that they’re up to a challenge.
Now psychologists have published a two-pronged study in the journal Scientific Reports suggesting that when we speak a cat’s language by slowly blinking at him or her, the cat will be more apt to respond in kind and even more inclined to approach us. Cats accept our relaxed blinking as an invitation to feel emotionally comfortable in our presence.
How the study worked
In the first arm of the study, the psychologists, from the UK’s Universities of Portsmouth and Sussex, instructed 14 cat owners who owned about 20 cats altogether to sit 3 feet from their pets and either slow blink at them or not pay the cats any attention. The cats ranged from kittens to geriatric, and the experiment was conducted in their homes so they would feel secure.
The upshot: when the cats were blinked at, as opposed to being ignored, they were significantly more likely to blink back, as in, “Yes, I feel safe, too. I feel good, and I trust you. I’m happy with this harmony.”
In the second arm of the study, another 20 or so cats, also of all different ages, were “introduced” to researchers they had never met. Again, the experiment took place in the cats’ homes rather than in a lab. The researchers sat opposite the cats either with a neutral expression (but without direct eye contact, which could be seen by felines as confrontational) or doing a series of slow blinks at them. Both times, they then offered their hand.
The result: the cats were much more likely to come over to the researchers after the slow blinking than after the inattentiveness. They clearly felt more secure and interested in a positive interaction.
Implications for your own cross-species communication
It can’t be said with certainty that all cats will engage with people in a kind of blinking Morse code. But since blinking is easy to do, it’s worth a try. And it might help calm a cat in a stressful environment, say, at the vet’s office.
The researchers point out that a slow blink actually has several components. You don’t go straight from eyes wide open to eyes shut. The cat in the series of photos can show you how to get the hang of it.
You might even be able to try this maneuver on cats you don’t know — in a shelter where you volunteer or on the street. It could be a way of assessing a cat’s comfort level and helping to improve it, the researchers suggest.