Want to Learn how to Communicate With Your Cat? New Study Suggests It’s All in The Eyes

This article first appeared on iCatCare.

A new study by a team of psychologists led by Dr Tamsin Humphrey and Professor Karen McComb has found that slow blink interactions with cats appear to be an indicator of positive emotions.

‘How can I communicate with my cat?’ is a question asked by every owner at some point. Socio-cognitive abilities of cats are an under-studied area and there’s a lot that we don’t know. This study entitled ‘The role of cat eye narrowing movements in cat–human communication’, published in the journal Scientific Reports, is the first to experimentally investigate slow blinking as a means of cat-human communication, and the first to show that this technique can be used to built rapport with cats.

Slow blinking, colloquially known as the cat smile or cat kiss by some, is typically a series of half blinks followed by narrowing the eyes or closing them. This behaviour, particularly narrowing the eyes, features in positive emotional displays from other species and even in humans with the Duchenne, or genuine, smile.

Copyright: Professor Karen McComb

In the course of the study, two experiments were conducted.

  • Experiment one : 21 cats from 14 different households were examined to see if they responded to human initiated slow blink stimuli with slow blink sequences themselves. The experiment took place in the cat’s own homes and their owners initiated the slow blinking.
  • Experiment two: 24 additional cats from 8 different households were observed to determine whether they were more likely to approach a researcher, who was unfamiliar to the cat, in response to slow blinking or a neutral face.

The results of both studies showed that slow blinking can provide a form of positive communication between cats and humans.

In the first experiment the rate of eye narrowing in the cats was significantly higher in response to the slow blink stimulus than in the control condition where their owner gave no slow blinking stimulus.

The second experiment found that cats were more likely to approach an experimenter if they used slow blink sequences compared to when experimenters used a neutral expression.

The study also found that both owners and unknown experimenters were more likely to elicit a slow blink sequence from the cats if they slow blinked themselves, rather than when they maintained a neutral expression.

Copyright: Professor Karen McComb

In terms of practical applications, the scope is huge, and this technique could be used by all working and caring for cats, for example, in homing centres and veterinary clinics to help create positive relationships, particularly for those cats that may be finding the presence of people difficult. The finding that this positive response can be elicited by people unknown to the cat is particularly interesting in this regard.

Slow blinking is also something that you can use at home with your own cat, as a way of greeting your cat and speaking their language. Professor Karen McComb, from the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex, who supervised the work, said:

“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.

“This study is the first to experimentally investigate the role of slow blinking in cat–human communication.  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.”

‘The role of cat eye narrowing movements in cat-human communication’ by Tasmin Humphrey, Leanne Proops, Jemma Forman, Rebecca Spooner and Karen McComb published in Scientific Reports is open access: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-73426-0

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