Cats have a history of isolation (and flooffiness), but if you and your feline friend don’t get along, you probably don’t speak their language.
Fear not – a 2020 survey has shown that it’s not that difficult. You just have to give them a big smile. Not the human way, by teething, but the cat way, by narrowing the eyes and blinking slowly.
Observing the interaction between cats and people, scientists have proven that these words make cats – both familiar and exotic – approach and pay more attention to people.
“As someone who has studied animal behavior and is a cat owner, it’s great to show that cats and people can connect in this way,” said Karen McComb, a psychologist at the University of Sussex in 2020.
“It’s something that many cat owners have suspected before, so it’s exciting to find evidence for it.”
If you’ve ever been around cats, you’ve probably seen their faces ‘slightly closed’, which is accompanied by slow blinking. It is similar to how the human eyes narrow when they smile and it usually happens when the eyes are relaxed and contented. The word is interpreted as a cat’s smile.
Anecdotal evidence from cat owners has shown that humans can use these words to communicate with cats that they are friendly and open to interactions. Therefore, a team of psychologists conducted two experiments to determine whether cats react differently to humans when blinking slowly.
In the first experiment, the owners looked closely at 21 cats from 14 different families. After the cat was settled and comfortable in one place in their home, the owners were instructed to stand one meter away and blink slowly while the cat was looking at them. Cameras recorded the faces of the owners and the cat, and the results were compared to how cats blink without interacting with humans.
The results showed that cats were more likely to blink slowly at their humans after their humans looked at them slowly, compared to those that did not interact.
The second experiment included 24 cats from eight families. This time, it wasn’t the owners who blinked but the researchers, who had never met a cat before. As a control, the cats were recorded making non-gaze responses, in which people looked at the cats without blinking.
The researchers performed a slightly similar procedure as the first experiment, adding an outstretched hand to the cat. And they found that not only were the cats able to blink back, but they were also able to approach a person’s hand when the person blinked.
“This study is the first to experimentally investigate the role of slow blinking in communication between cats and humans,” McComb said.
“And it’s something you can try yourself with your cat at home or with cats you meet on the street. It’s the best way to strengthen the bond you have with cats. Try to look at them as you can smile freely. , then close your eyes for a few seconds. You will find that they answer in the same way, and you can start a conversation.
Dogs may be faster demonstrator than cats, but this story is no surprise to cat lovers. Research in recent years has shown that our feline friends bond more closely with their housemates than previously thought and that comparing them to dogs is unhelpful.
Cats, for example, respond kindly to people who listen to them – so if you find cats standing still, this may be a problem with you, not the cat. In the same way, cats match the personalities of the people who live with them – this may be related to why cats seem to pick up when their people are sad. They can even recognize their own names (although they choose to ignore them most of the time). And their relationships with people are incredibly deep.
It’s hard to know why cats are slow – they blink at people like that. It is interpreted as a way to show good intentions because cats are thought to interpret a fixed gaze as a threat. But it’s also possible that cats invented the word because humans respond well to it. With domesticated animals, it is often impossible to tell.
Either way, it seems to help build relationships. And that’s a good thing to know. Learning how to improve our relationships with these mysterious animals can also be a way to improve their mental health – not only at home but in a variety of situations that can be stressful.
“Understanding the best ways in which cats and people interact can help to understand cats, improve the health of primates, and tell us more about the cognitive abilities of this species that have not been well studied,” said psychologist Tasmin Humphrey from the University of Sussex.
“Our findings can be used to assess the status of cats in a variety of environments, including animal behavior and shelters.”
You’re going to try it right now, aren’t you?
Research has been published in Scientific Reports.
A version of this article was originally published in October 2020.