You may or may not be aware of the “cat slow blink”.
In case you haven’t, it’s simply when a cat gently lowers their eyelids in a kind of slow… well, blink, towards a human or other cat/animal.
For years, cat behaviourists and other cat enthusiasts would suggest that it’s a sign of affection and trust. I mean, we can’t exactly ask a cat why they do it, but it has always been inferred that it’s probably a cat saying, “I trust you enough to close my eyes in your presence” (or similar, depending on who you ask).
To make it even more interesting (or cute, depending on your view!), anecdotally, cats and humans can exchange these ‘cat kisses’ between themselves! Some behaviourists, vets, carers and other cat professionals even use it as a technique to gain a cat’s trust!
Well, wouldn’t you know, it turns out that there’s some recent scientific research behind it (which is amazing when it comes to cat behaviour)!
Published in 2020 in Nature, researchers of ‘The role of cat eye narrowing movements in cat-human communication’, actually performed two experiments.
Experiment 1 looked at 21 cats from 14 households. In this experiment, owners were asked to slow blink at their cats for a certain period of time and the actions from the cats were video recorded and assessed.
Experiment 2 looked at 24 (different from Experiment 1) cats. In this experiment, a human unknown to the cat would offer the cat an upturned palm and waited to see if they approached (measuring their approach tendency). After understanding this, they would then do 1 of 2 things. They would either slow blink at the cat, or look very slightly away with a neutral expression, and measure under which condition the cat would be more likely to approach.
Well, the results are quite satisfying, essentially agreeing with what we thought all along!
In the first experiment, cats were far more likely to slow blink at their owner if the owner slow blinks at their cat first. Some cats would still slow blink at their owner if the owner didn’t slow blink first, but it happened far more often if the owner initiated it.
In the second experiment, if a human unfamiliar to the cat slow blinks, then the cat is also more likely to slow blink back. Additionally, the experiment showed that the cat was more likely to approach the unknown human after the human slow blinks!
So, it does seem that the cat slow blink is a thing, and it likely points to a symbol of trust or affiliation!
It’s not unexpected, as we’ve known for a while that cats take note of specific human facial expressions and movements.
It’s been demonstrated that cats will look to their owners when faced with a new or novel situation. This is known as ‘social referencing’. Essentially, cats (and other domestic species) will look to their owners to see whether a situation or threatening or safe. They pick up on several social cues, including verbal (tone, volume, pitch etc) and physical (body language, facial expressions etc). So, it’s not altogether surprising that our own facial movements, like a slow blink, do have (in this case, positive) impacts on our felines!
So, what’s the takeaway from all this?
If you’re trying to strengthen the bond between you and your cat, trying slow blinks regularly may help to demonstrate trust. Even if you have a great bond, it’s still a fun thing to do (I’ll bet a lot of you do it anyway. I know that for myself, if I catch a cat looking at me I’ll generally do a slow blink and see what happens!).
Secondly, knowing that our cats do ‘socially reference’ us to determine the threat level of certain situations, it’s probably worth attenuating our responses (or at least be super aware of them) in situations that may make cats anxious. For example, when the doorbell rings, when leaving for work (in the case of separation anxiety), at the vet surgery etc.
Here’s to happy, healthy and slow-blinking cats!