Cats have a bit of a reputation for standoffishness, especially compared with dogs. But if you find your feline friend is a little hard to bond with, maybe you're just not speaking their language.
Research shows that it's actually not so difficult. You just need to smile at them more.
Not smile in the human way, by baring your teeth, but the cat way: by narrowing your eyes and blinking slowly.
In a study published in 2020, scientists observed cat-human interactions, and were able to confirm that this act of blinking slowly makes cats – both familiar and unfamiliar animals – approach and be receptive to humans.
"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," psychologist Karen McComb of the University of Sussex in the UK explained when the results of the study were published.
"It's something that many cat owners had already suspected, so it's exciting to have found evidence for it."
If you've spent any time around cats, you've probably seen their 'partially closed eyes' facial expression, accompanied by slow blinking. It's similar to how human eyes narrow when smiling, and usually occurs when puss is relaxed and content. The expression is interpreted as a kind of cat smile.
Anecdotal evidence from cat owners has hinted that humans can copy this expression to communicate to cats that we are friendly and open to interaction. So, in the study, a team of psychologists designed two experiments to determine whether cats behaved differently towards slow-blinking humans.
In the first experiment, owners slow-blinked at 21 cats from 14 different households. Once the cat was settled and comfy in one spot in their home environment, the owners were instructed to sit about a meter away and slow-blink when the cat was looking at them.
Cameras recorded both the owner's face and the cat's face, and the results were compared to how cats blink with no human interaction.
The results showed that cats are more likely to slow-blink at their humans after their humans have slow-blinked at them, compared to the no-interaction condition.
The second experiment included 24 cats from eight different households. This time, it wasn't the owners doing the blinking but the researchers, who'd had no prior contact with the cat. For a control, the cats were recorded responding to a no-blink condition, in which humans stared at the cats without blinking their eyes.
The researchers performed the same slow-blink process as the first experiment, adding an extended hand towards the cat. And they found that not only were the cats more likely to blink back, but that they were more likely to approach the human's hand after the human had blinked.
"This study is the first to experimentally investigate the role of slow blinking in cat-human communication," McComb said.
"And 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. 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."
Dogs may be a lot more enthusiastically demonstrative than cats, but for cat lovers, the slow blinking phenomenon might not come as a surprise.
Research in recent years has shown that our feline friends are a lot more in tune with their human housemates than previously supposed, and that comparing them to dogs is a disservice.
Cats, for example, respond in kind to humans who are receptive to them – so if you find cats standoffish, that might be a problem with you, not the kitty.
Likewise, cats echo the personality traits of the humans they live with – this may be related to why cats seem to pick up when their humans are sad. They also can recognise their names (although they choose to ignore them a lot of the time). And their bonds with their humans are surprisingly deep.
It's difficult to know why cats slow-blink at humans this way. It's been interpreted as a means of signalling benign intentions, since cats are thought to interpret unbroken staring as threatening.
But it's also possible that cats developed the expression since humans respond positively to it. With domesticated animals, it's often impossible to tell.
Either way, it does seem to help forge a rapport. And that's a good thing to know. Learning how to improve our relationships with these enigmatic animals could also be a way to improve their emotional health – not just in the home environment, but across a range of potentially stressful situations.
The research was published in Scientific Reports.
An earlier version of this article was published in October 2020.