Why Does My Cat Stare at Me?

Cute young tabby and white cat with big green eyes, looking up at camera
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One of the more disconcerting moments in the lives of cat owners is waking up to a pair (or worse, pairs) of wide, glowing eyes watching them in the dark. But a cat's stare isn't actually indicative of impending doom. Rather, most cats are using one of the tools nature gave them to communicate. Either that, or they can hear or see something owners can't. 

While some of a cat's eye movements are reflexive, research shows that other visual behaviors are a result of a variety of factors, including genetic background, housing conditions, early development, and even an owner's personality. Read on to learn more about the biological reasons why cats stare as well as what they might be trying to communicate to their owners.

Trying to Communicate

Recent research into owners' perceptions of their cats' behavior documents staring as a precursor to more overt forms of communication. For example, a cat might stare at his owner with eyes wide open when it's near mealtime, and if he isn't fed, move on to more dramatic ways of drawing attention, including vocalization (meowing, purring) or pacing and circling near where food is stored. In a study of interactions between shelter cats and potential families, cats who exhibited overt social behaviors, as opposed to subtle changes in facial expression, were more likely to be adopted, indicating that humans are more likely to be influenced by overt behavior.

With many cats being notoriously stubborn, it's not really surprising they would still use staring to try and communicate with us, regardless of whether or not it's effective. The best way to interpret your cat's staring is to consider what nearby stimuli (including things humans might not be able to hear or see) could be a source of your cat's attention, as well as to analyze your cat's body language and posturing for other clues to discover what they're trying to communicate.

Looking for Prey

Many a cat owner has walked into a room to find a cat intently staring at a wall for no apparent reason. What are they looking at? A better question might be, what can a cat hear or see that you can't? Cats seek out prey using both audio and visual clues, sometimes using a "sit and wait" approach, and sometimes stalking their victims, depending on the opportunities for food that arise. Either way, cats often notice specks of dust or shadows that humans find innocuous and intently wait for any signs of movement. It's also possible that they can hear insects or mice nearby that they can't see. Cats' ocular system allows the head to be moving slightly while the gaze remains fixed, and accurately measures small, rapid changes in position or angle, aiding their ability to capture small prey.

Waiting for Cues?

In the wild, a cat's vision (and sense of smell) helps it gather information. Cats have the ability to return to successful hunting areas and look for more food. However, research has also shown that cats will veer from a familiar path and into appealing looking visual territory, like a freshly mown pasture, a recently harvested grain field, or a new forest clearing, where the odds of successfully finding prey are high.

In domesticated settings, cats no longer need to hunt for food and their source of sustenance becomes their owner. As a result, some cats adopt similar patterns of behavior to those seen in the wild and fixate on their owner's movements, reading their body language for clues as to when they'll get their next meal. They also watch for visual cues, like an owner patting the couch next to them, encouraging his cat to jump up. Particularly for cats on a set feeding schedule, owners report cats watching them closely and reacting whenever they believe their owner is about to feed them.

That said, because cats have not been domesticated in the same manner as dogs, researchers believe it's possible that they could be taking the initiative in cat-human interactions and attempting to give their owners cues, rather than the other way around, with many of their behaviors. Meaning, basically, that your cat is trying to will you into feeding it with its eyes.

Expressing Emotions

When two unfamiliar cats meet, intense eye contact often becomes a face-off that leads to an antagonistic interaction, often accompanied by loud and dramatic howls that anyone living near outdoor cats has likely heard before. With owners, a cat's stare is rarely a sign of aggression, but if a direct stare is accompanied by tense posture, a lowered, puffed tail, hissing, or growling, a cat may be expressing anger. Avoid making eye contact and avoid the cat. While slow blinking can be a sign of relaxation when cats are lying down, rapid blinking and half-blinking with a left head and gaze bias has also been shown to indicate fear.

In extremely rare cases, staring can also be related to health issues. One condition, hyperesthesia syndrome, will suddenly impact cats when they wake up, with their tail twitching, eyes wide open, pupils dilated and very focused, as the cat enters a period of intense and erratic activity for 20-30 seconds. A veterinarian can diagnose this condition if your cat suddenly experiences seemingly uncontrollable behavior.

The majority of the time, a cat's stare is part of the processing of stimuli around it, as the animal constantly smells and sees and reacts accordingly. However, research has also shown unique personality traits in cats. For some owners, their cat's stare is tied to specific, tangible requests, like, retrieving a toy or treat from a certain area. For others, prolonged eye contact with their cat is a trusting, bonding, moment, backed up by cat behavior in the wild illustrating that cats will not make relaxed, extended eye contact with other unfamiliar cats. Whatever the reason, it's likely cats will continue baffling their owners with their facial expressions, or lack thereof, for many years to come.

View Article Sources
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