Depending on your perspective, cats are either aloof and grumpy or cuddly and loving. The challenge is that the cat's main competition for the title of favourite pet is the dog—an animal so over-the-top in its enthusiasm that it is a tough act to follow!
(Woof! Woof! Yes, yes, we know, Spot. We love you, too! Down, boy!)
But the key with cats is that they each set their own terms for friendship. We already looked at a study that examined how even experienced cat owners need to start from square one with each new kitty that they meet.
And now another study is showing that many cats are actually saying loud and clear how much they love their fellow humans. We maybe just don't recognize it right away. And even better, you can learn to say, "I love you" back!
Welcome to the wonderful world of the cat slow-blink.
What is a slow-blink?
A blink is an action that we do instinctively hundreds of times a day. It is when we quickly close both eyes and open them again. This is a non-voluntary action (meaning we don't have to think about it to do it) that is designed to keep our eyes hydrated and free of dust and other stuff.
A slow-blink is similar to this, but, well, slower. Think of lingering longer on the closed part of the blink, then gradually opening them back up again. If you have a cat or are around one a lot, you probably know it well. It looks a lot like the cat is sleepy and getting ready to snooze. (Which if you're around cats you know happens often! Zzzzzzz ...)
But people have long suspected that cats aren't just sleepy when they slow-blink. Instead, they have guessed that this was an expression of feeling calm and at ease with the person near them. If "I love you" is maybe a little bit of an exaggeration, the slow-blink at least said something like, "Hey. Me and you? We're cool."
Why are you staring at me?
The idea came from the fact that in the wild, cats (and many animals) take unbroken eye contact, or staring, as a threat. And it makes sense. After all, staring is exactly what the cat itself does when it is hunting something. Whether that something is another living thing or an enticing cat toy!
So the idea behind the slow-blink is that when a cat does this at a human, it is signalling that it does not want to harm us. It is totally relaxed and even happy to be in our company.
It sounds logical and convincing. But can we prove it? And if we slow-blink at a cat, will they blink back?
Take the blink to the bank!
That's what the study out of the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom set out to confirm. It did two separate studies.
First, it took 21 cats from 14 different households. They recorded the cats in their familiar home environment and saw how often the cats slow-blinked on their own. Then they had their owners sit a metre away from them and, once the cat was relaxed, asked them to slow-blink at their kitty.
The results showed that cats slow-blinked more at their owners and responded positively to their owners blinking at them. They seemed to 'speak' in blinks.
Then, 24 more cats from 8 different households were collected for a study to see if humans other than the cats owners could use a slow-blink to build trust. First, humans were asked to just stare at the cat. (Ooooo. AWKWARD.) Next, the humans were asked to both slow-blink and extend a hand for sniffing.
Here the results showed that not only did cats blink back, they were even more into checking out the stranger's hand after that person slow-blinked.
Is it a smile?
So is the slow-blink a cat's way of smiling? That might not be an exact comparison, but it is maybe not far off. It's also not that different to how we smile.
A full human smile involves showing, or baring, the teeth. This is a real no-no in a lot of animal circles where baring the teeth is a major sign of aggression. BUT. When we really, really smile, we also narrow, or even fully close, our eyes. So maybe the two responses to loving someone's company aren't all that different?
If you have a cat, try out a few slow-blinks yourself. We're pretty sure that the interaction will go purr-fectly!