Research

How to make friends with cats, according to science

Blink once if you love cats.

Animal behaviorists have revealed the most effective way to befriend a feline: the “slow blink.”

The new research suggests that humans can signal goodwill by learning how cats themselves smile — that is, when a cat narrows its eyes and shuts them, holding them closed for a few brief moments. The move is a show of accord, both between cats and with their human companions.

“As someone who has both studied animal behavior and is a cat owner, it’s great to be able to show that cats and humans can communicate in this way,” said University of Sussex Professor Karen McComb in a statement on the University of Portsmouth website. The two institutions worked together to produce the study, published in Scientific Reports.

“It’s something that many cat owners had already suspected, so it’s exciting to have found evidence for it.”

McComb described the routine: “Try narrowing your eyes at them as you would in a relaxed smile, followed by closing your eyes for a couple of seconds. You’ll find they respond in the same way themselves, and you can start a sort of conversation.”

It was previously suspected that cats’ slow blink was an indication that they are feeling relaxed and non-threatened, and that cats often look at each other this way as a show of friendship. By contrast, a stare-down is often considered a threat in the animal world.

“This study is the first to experimentally investigate the role of slow blinking in cat–human communication,” McComb claimed.

Their two-part experiment found that cats tend not to initiate the slow blink at their owner; rather, they wait for a human’s prompt before returning in kind. In the next test, scientists discovered that cats were more willing to approach a human’s outstretched hand if they had also used the slow-blink technique to greet the cat, as opposed to participants who imparted a neutral expression.

“Understanding positive ways in which cats and humans interact can enhance public understanding of cats, improve feline welfare, and tell us more about the socio-cognitive abilities of this under-studied species,” said Dr. Tasmin Humphrey, who co-led the research with McComb. The findings are particularly useful for veterinarians and rescuers to better assess feline welfare and emotions.

Paradoxically, Humphrey theorizes that cats may have adopted the habit more regularly after noticing that humans were the ones who felt more relaxed after a cat’s slow blink.

“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,” she explained. “Cats may have learned that humans reward them for responding to slow blinking.”

Humphrey continued, “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.”

McComb suggests all cat lovers make use of their discovery.

“It is something you can try yourself with your own cat at home, or with cats you meet in the street. It’s a great way of enhancing the bond you have with cats,” she said.