A new study published in the journal Scientific Reports has confirmed the long-held belief of feline-crazy pet owners worldwide that you can bond with your cat by sending them a slow blink. By narrowing your eyes, you can generate the equivalent of a smile for a cat, which according to the authors makes the owner more attractive to their pet.
The study is the first of its kind to confirm the “cat smile” theory and was carried out by animal behavior experts at the University of Sussex. Two-pronged in its approach, it first looked at 21 cats from 14 different households to see how they responded when their humans sent them a slow blink. The experiments were held in the pets’ homes and once the cats were settled, the owners made eye contact and narrowed their eyes from about a meter (3 feet) away.
The second experiment looked at an additional group of 24 cats from eight different households to see how they responded when the researcher, who was unfamiliar to them, sent a slow blink. They also wanted to look at how the exchange of a slow blink influenced whether or not a cat would come to investigate the up-turned palm of a stranger when it was offered to them.
Their findings revealed that felines are more likely to send their owners a slow blink when their owners do it to them, sending fewer cat “smiles” when their owners don’t interact with them at all. In the second experiment, researchers who had sent their new feline friends a slow blink before offering them their hand were more likely to be approached compared to those who maintained a neutral expression. Combined, the results show that slow blinking constitutes a positive communication between cats and humans and can be used to establish a bond both between pets and their owners as well as cats and strangers.
This is the first time that it has been experimentally proven that it’s possible to build rapport with a cat by using an eye-narrowing technique. The finding is interesting, as the eye narrowing involved in slow blinking mirrors to some extent the expression made by humans when we smile, and a recent study established that it's possible to artificially boost your mood by pulling what’s called a Duchenne smile. Whether the cat “smile” has developed through mimicking humans or was an innate behavior in these animals long before they were domesticated is not yet clear, but the researchers hope the findings can benefit animal welfare by improving the bonds between cats and humans in a host of settings.
"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 Professor Karen McComb, from the University of Sussex, in a statement. “It's something that many cat owners had already suspected, so it's exciting to have found evidence for it.
"This study is the first to experimentally investigate the role of slow blinking in cat-human communication. And 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. 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."