Have you ever noticed your cat glaring at you through half-closed eyes? While many of us have seen this expression, it turns out that human interpretation of cat behavior might be completely wrong.
In a study published in Scientific Reports, researchers discovered that this feline expression, which they call "slow blinking" and "eye narrowing," may actually be a sign of positive emotion – and when you return the gesture to your cats, it actually makes them feel better about you too!
On the whole, feline social communication behavior and cat-human interactions have not been as widely studied as other animals such as dogs, horses, pigs, goats and even cows. That's not because the cats are uncooperative – though we all know they can be. Actually, animal behaviorists originally believed that cats were more solitary creatures based on their evolutionary history despite being domesticated. Over the years though, studies have shown that cats are almost as good as dogs at following a pointed finger to an object or referencing their favorite human when they're confused about what to do.
In this October 2020 study, researchers decided to test if the distinctly feline behavior of "slow blinking" had a communicative effect between humans and cats — and whether that effect was paw-sitive or negative.
In a series of experiments, they showed that cats respond positively to slow blinking from humans, and initiate the behavior themselves in calm, peaceful contexts when they likely feel content. Cats were more likely to return slow blinking to their owners and un-familiar others who started the slow blinking interaction, compared to those who weren't doing it. Additionally, cats were more likely to approach an unfamiliar human who initiated slow blinking to them as opposed to one with a neutral expression.
While scientists obviously can't be sure until we figure out how to translate meows and purrs, there's some speculation that slow blinking may actually be the feline equivalent of smiling. This means that when your cat gives you a half-closed eye look, it's actually not a glare – it's a pleasant expression they hope you'll reciprocate.
"As someone who has both studied animal behavior 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," said professor Karen McComb, from the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex, England, who supervised the work, in a press release.
You probably want to try this at home with your own cat, so what's the right way to do it? "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," said McComb.