The new study ‘The role of cat eye narrowing movements in cat-human communication’, published online in the Nature journal Scientific Reports, has shown for the first time that it is possible to build rapport with a cat by using an eye narrowing technique with them. This eye narrowing action by humans generates something popularly known as a cat smile — the so called “slow blink” — and seems to make the human more attractive to the cat. Eye narrowing movements in cats have some parallels with the genuine smile in humans (the Duchenne smile), as well as eye narrowing movements given in positive situations in some other species. The study shows that this slow blinking technique can provide a form of positive communication between cats and humans.
The study found:
- Cats were more likely to slow blink at their owners if their owners had slowed blinked at them, compared to when the owner was present in the room but not delivering a slow blink stimulus.
- Cats were more likely to slow blink when an unfamiliar experimenter slow blinked at them, compared to when they had maintained a neutral expression.
- Cats preferred to approach an experimenter after they had slow blinked at the cat than if they had maintained a neutral expression.
The findings could potentially be used to assess the welfare of cats in a variety of settings, including veterinary practices and shelters.
In terms of why cats behave in this way, it could be argued that cats developed the slow blink behaviors because humans perceived slow blinking as positive. Cats may have learned that humans reward them for responding to slow blinking. It is also possible that slow blinking in cats began as a way to interrupt an unbroken stare, which is potentially threatening in social interaction.
It’s definitely not easy to study natural cat behavior so these results provide a rare insight in to the world of cat-human communication.
Source: University of Sussex