Dogs we usually understand, mostly because they are so easy to understand. They have expressive faces and body language that we can read pretty accurately. Cats, on the other hand, are known for their emotional vagueness and standoffishness.
But there is a growing belief that cats are as expressive as dogs. It’s just that we misunderstand or don’t see what they’re trying to communicate.
When it comes to cats, those meows and tail waves mean … well, a lot of things. With each purr, yowl or even blink, felines are saying, “Hello,” “Let’s snuggle” or “Get Outta Here.”
For the increasing number of pet owners who want to connect with their often-aloof cats, experts say there’s something to gain from those attempts at communication. Cats are very independent, and so they are easily misunderstood. Here is a discussion that aims to demystify the mystery of certain cat “talk”, specifically the eyes, by helping you discern what cats are trying to convey.
Cats talk with their eyes. The direction of your cat's gaze will direct you to the subject of his attention. But gazes vary. Some are intense and focused while others are haphazard. When your cat stares without blinking, does he want something from you or is he feeling angry? Either could be true. Although a fixed gaze and rigid body posture might mean hostility, the same look might be soliciting petting or some other form of attention in a relaxed, purring cat.
What cats say is often determined by the position of the eyelids and dilation of the eyes. The messages vary from subtle to overt and can be incredibly powerful. Kitty doesn’t need to vocalize to get her message across, although the intent often is reinforced with tail talk, ear positions, and fluffed fur.
Any strong emotional arousal—fear, anger, pleasure, excitement—can result in the sudden dilation of a cat's pupil. You may see your kitty’s pupils get large (making her eyes look black) during a visit to the vet or when their are loud noises outside. Other times, her eyes might do this when surprised by the introduction of a new cat.
Cats open their eyes wide when they are alert. Exposing wide-open eyes to potential injury can be a sign of great trust. For example, cats that head-butt your cheeks or do the same to a friendly dog indicate calm trust, and perhaps even love.
Cat eyes that stare unblinkingly from a distance can be a sign of control, dominance, or even aggression. Owners often won’t recognize this subtle behavior, which can be used to control access to resources in multi-cat households. Simply by using this unblinking stare, a single cat can warn off and keep other felines from approaching an “owned” pathway to food bowls, litter box, or another important territory.
A slit-eyed look indicates strong emotion—fear or aggression. Squinting also protects eyes from potential claws of an opponent. Avoid locking eyes with a cat you don’t know, or you may prompt an attack.
A relaxed and trusting kitty has droopy, sleepy-looking eyelids. Try sending a “kitty kiss” to your distant pet—meet her sleepy gaze with a relaxed gaze of your own, and slowly “blink.” If she blinks back, you have been honored with the deepest affection!
If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet’s health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.
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Koyasu H, Kikusui T, Takagi S, Nagasawa M. The Gaze Communications Between Dogs/Cats and Humans: Recent Research Review and Future Directions. 2021 Mar 01;12:645366]. Front Psychol. 2021;11:613512. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.613512
Your Cat’s Tail, Ear, and Eye Signals. Cats International.
Humphrey T, Proops L, Forman J, Spooner R, McComb K. The Role of Cat Eye Narrowing Movements in Cat–human Communication. Sci Rep. 2021;10(1). doi:10.1038/s41598-020-73426-0