Study confirms you can actually communicate with your cat by doing this

Cats have a reputation for aloofness (and cuteness), but if you and your feline friend aren’t bonding, maybe you’re just not speaking their language.

Fear not – the 2020 survey showed it’s not that difficult. You just need to smile more at them. Not the human way, baring teeth, but the cat way, narrowing your eyes and blinking slowly.

By observing cat-human interactions, scientists have confirmed that this expression causes cats – both familiar and strangers – to approach and be more receptive to humans.

“As someone who has studied animal behavior and owns a cat, it’s great to be able to show that cats and humans can communicate in this way,” Karen McComb, a psychologist at the University of Sussex, said in a 2020 statement.

“It’s something that many cat owners already suspected, so it’s exciting to have found evidence of this.”

If you’ve spent any time around cats, you’ve probably seen their ‘partly closed eyes’ facial expressions, accompanied by slow blinking. It is similar to how human eyes narrow when smiling and usually occurs when the cat is relaxed and content. The expression is interpreted as a kind of cat smile.

Anecdotal evidence from cat owners has suggested that humans can copy this expression to communicate to cats that we are friendly and open to interaction. So a team of psychologists designed two experiments to determine whether cats behaved differently than slow-blinking humans.

In the first experiment, owners blinked slowly at 21 cats from 14 different families. Once the cat was settled and comfortable in one spot in their home environment, the owners were instructed to sit about 1 meter away and blink slowly when the cat was looking at them. The cameras recorded the owner’s and cat’s faces, and the results were compared to how cats blink without human interaction.

Results showed that cats are more likely to blink slowly at their humans after their humans have blinked slowly at them, compared to the no-interaction condition.

The second experiment included 24 cats from eight different families. This time, it wasn’t the owners who blinked, but the researchers, who had no previous contact with the cat. As a control, cats were recorded responding to a no-blink condition, in which humans looked at cats without blinking.

The researchers performed the same slow blinking process as in the first experiment, adding an outstretched hand towards the cat. And they found that not only were the cats more likely to blink back, but they were also more likely to move closer to the human’s hand after the human blinked.

“This study is the first to experimentally investigate the role of slow blinking in cat-human communication,” said McComb.

“And it’s something you can try with your own cat at home or with cats you meet on the street. It’s a great way to increase the bond you have with cats. Try narrowing your eyes at them as you would with a relaxed smile, followed by closing your eyes for a few seconds. You’ll find they respond in kind and you can strike up a conversation of sorts.”

Dogs can show a lot more enthusiasm than cats, but this news comes as no surprise to cat lovers. Research over the past few years has shown that our feline friends are much more in tune with their human housemates than previously assumed and that comparing them to dogs does them a disservice.

Cats, for example, respond similarly to humans who are receptive to them — so if you find cats aloof, that might be a problem with you, not the kitty. Likewise, cats reflect the personality traits of the humans they live with – this could be related to why cats seem to understand when their humans are sad. They might also recognize your names (although they choose to ignore them most of the time). And their bonds with their humans are surprisingly deep.

It’s hard to know why cats blink slowly at humans in this way. It has been interpreted as a means of signaling benign intentions, as cats interpret non-stop staring as threatening. But it’s also possible that cats developed the expression, as humans respond positively to it. With domesticated animals, it’s often impossible to tell.

Either way, it seems to help establish a relationship. And that’s good to know. Learning to improve our relationships with these enigmatic animals can also be a way to improve their emotional health – not just in the home environment, but in a range of potentially stressful situations.

“Understanding the positive ways in which cats and humans interact can improve public understanding of cats, improve feline well-being and tell us more about the sociocognitive abilities of this understudied species,” said psychologist Tasmin Humphrey from the University of Sussex.

“Our findings can be used to assess the well-being of cats in a variety of settings, including veterinary clinics and shelters.”

You’re going to try it now, aren’t you?

The research was published in Scientific Reports.

A version of this article was first published in October 2020.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *