Researchers in England might have found a way to strengthen you and your cat’s bond. All you have to do is squint your eyes, proceed with a “slow blink” then maybe, just maybe, your cat will tolerate you.
The “eye narrowing” technique isn’t particularly new, but it’s the first time it’s been tested in a controlled experiment, according to the researchers, who say the eye play may be a form of “positive emotional communication between cats and humans.”
Experts call it a “cat smile.”
They also note that their findings can help improve people’s understanding of feline well-being, especially in settings such as vets and shelters where strong connections may be needed to provide care for the animals.
A study was published Monday in the journal Scientific Reports.
“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,” study supervisor Karen McComb, a professor of psychology at the University of Sussex in England, said in a news release.
“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,” McComb added.
Here’s what you need to do: place yourself in front of your cat, narrow your eyes like you would in a relaxed smile, then close them for a couple of seconds, mimicking a slow motion blink.
“You’ll find they respond in the same way themselves and you can start a sort of conversation,” McComb said.
To test the technique, the researchers conducted two separate experiments. The first involved 21 cats from 14 different households. Owners were taught how to “slow blink” while sitting about three feet away from their cat.
The experiment showed that cats are more likely to slow blink at their owners after their owners slow blinked at them, compared to no interaction between the two, according to the study.
The second experiment was similarly set up but with 24 different cats from eight different homes. This time, the cat was partnered with an unfamiliar researcher for the stare down.
The stranger either slow blinked at the cat or put on a neutral expression without direct eye contact. They were also instructed to stretch out an open palm to the cat or just sit across from it. Turns out the cats were more likely to approach the stranger’s outstretched hand after they slow blinked at it, compared to when they had a neutral face.
Why do cats take a liking to eye narrowing?
The researchers speculate cats behave more friendly when their owners narrow their eyes at them because over time, humans may have rewarded them for the action in a positive way.
Another theory is that cats slow blink because it’s a way to break up intense staring, “which is potentially threatening in social interaction” with other cats or species, the researchers said.
Although cats may be more mysterious than dogs, past research has broken down that wall between human and feline miscommunication.
For example, we know that cats can attract and manipulate human attention through purring, they can differentiate their name from other words and they can be “sensitive” to human emotions by rubbing or butting their heads against their owner to provide support, the researchers said.
These actions have long been a part of what make cats such popular pets, but studying their natural behavior, and providing evidence through experiments, can provide “rare insight into the world of cat-human communication,” study co-supervisor Dr. Leanne Proops from the University of Portsmouth in England, said in the release.