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Reading Your Cat’s Eyes

Posted by at 5:17 AM | Permalink | Comments (30)

Reading Your Cat's Eyes By Ingrid NewkirkMany of us cat lovers think that we really know our cats well enough. But by taking the time, we can actually communicate with them on a whole new level. This can be easily done by paying closer attention to their eyes! Here are some tips that I outlined in my book 250 Things You Can Do to Make Your Cat Adore You to get you and your best friend on the same page.

One major way cats communicate is by using their eyes. This is helpful because we have eyes, too.

Cats’ eyes are not exactly like ours, however. Experimenters at the University of Oregon Eugene and other bastions of great learning have wasted vats of federal funds and countless cat lives trying to put to human use knowledge gained from interfering with cats’ eye movements. It can’t be done.

According to veterinary ophthalmologist, Dr. Ned Buyukmichi, “Humans have a very specialized region in their retina with which they see and almost all their vision depends on that specialized area. Cats don’t have that specialized area. Also cats have a much greater ability to see at night. These and other reasons make the information from vision experiments on cats worthless if it is to be applied to humans.”

Veterinarian H. Ellen Whiteley reports that cats can see in light only one-fifth as bright as the faintest light we can see and that their complex ears contain 30 different muscles, whereas ours have only six. But no set of figures or charts can convey the anger, annoyance, bliss, love, and subtler emotions your cat’s extraordinarily expressive eyes hold. So don’t think I was scrimping on design costs when I left out the chart.

Cats’ pupils dilate when they are angry or on the attack, and cats smile at us and other cat friends with appreciative eyes by squinting.

Your cat will slowly, almost, but usually not quite, close her eyes and reopen them while looking at you. When almost closed, the eyes are held at the lowest point for a second. You can return the sentiment by gently squinting back, mimicking the cat’s pattern. It would be rude to do anything less.

If a cat closes her eyes all the way for more than a split second, that is absolute trust in action.

If your cat “smiles” when looking at you, you are observing a private contentment, expressed publicly in the same way you might give a happy sigh in an empty room.

To read eyes, you have to watch closely.

When your cat sees a bird outside the window and that tail starts twitching, compare the look in your cat’s eyes to the look that accompanies a different tail-twitching experience-the appearance of a strange cat. Although your cat’s eyes will dart back and forth in both cases, the first look is reserved for interest in prey, the second for interest in a potential marauder. Although the two looks are different to the seasoned cat observer, both hold elements of annoyance, keen interest, an awareness of the potential for action, reserve, and the need for vigilance.

Annoyance is commonly expressed in joint eye and tail action. If you are not attentive, you can get swatted at or bitten, simply because you missed your cat’s polite warning that he or she was in no mood to be petted or picked up.

Can you read your cat?

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  • judith hensel says:

    I’ve observed at least 100 expressions in my dear cat’s eyes, including profound compassion when I was in deep pain. He is an eye-talker to the endth degree. I can read his emotions as clearly as I can read a human’s. Other animals’ eyes reveal their complexity, too. I encourage people to look into the eyes of every animal they encounter. Most amazing. Very educational.

  • newton parker says:

    cats eyes are dialated and he gets very playful zooming around the house we call them crazy eyes

  • Lisa north says:

    Yes I agree I have a kitten and she does the same with her eyes when she gets. Mad her eyes goes biger

  • Fernando says:

    I do notice all the different emotions in my cat. It is an amassing thing to watch, its really a miracle of complex life.
    We think we know so much, are so special and unique, but we are just another creature
    I know cats are capable of every emotion humans have and are much more complex that just instincts that the cat is born with which are incredible in themselves…
    Amassing animals for sure…

  • Lily says:

    I saw a post from earlier this year about a lovely cat who does occasionally tend to suddenly bite or scratch. PLEASE keep her, this can be happening for many reasons. Often kitties can get overstimulated while being petted and they don’t know what to do with all of that, so they might nip at you. We have had cats at different times who do this, and what you do is just STOP. Let kitty calm down and next time, if you have this level of trust, offer your hand and your kitty will usually show you where she likes to be petted by rubbing against your hand. Some cats just do not want to be touched below their necks, I don’t know why but have seen it and have been told by friends “Please only pet his head”.
    We humans just have to keep in mind that next to a cat? We are HUGE. Huge hulking creatures. (I also was lucky enough to have read a book when I was very young about a little boy who was shrunk to cat size, then experienced being picked up quickly, placed in shirt pockets… he learnt how better to behave with his kitty. A great lesson for adults too!!) I wish I knew the name of that story, it was in a fairy tale book at my Grandparents’ home, sadly they are not with us now)

    Sorry to go on and on. Make sure your kitty is physically healthy, and if so, just be patient. Earn trust. Feed kitty, provide fresh water always, keep the litter super clean (cats are SO clean, they appreciate clean surroundings). It seems to me that you love this kitty, so you have a great start! Cats love so much and ask for so, so little. I wish you both the very best!! <3 (I hope this posts, I don't know if my previous one did)

  • Allie says:

    The Blink from a cat is a wonderful thing to receive. Especially if you are with an outside cat. I read when I was very young that a Blink meant “I love you!” and thought that seemed not very …. sense-making? 🙂 But later I did realize that trust from a cat is huge and it is a form of fondness. Maybe not quite love yet, but very much like and so much Trust.
    I don’t say “love”, because like people, all cats are different. That is an important thing to know, and I always say to people who say “I do not like cats” that they are either allergic, or simply have not met the right cat yet. (I stand by this statement, hating any kind of non scary animal is bizarre to me and i truly think it has to mean a bad run-in or something)
    Anyway! All cats show love differently. So get to know one or 5 and pay attention to how they communicate. It is so helpful, and very useful when a vet tells you something batty about a cat who has you as her human…. one size doesn’t fit all. But The Blink? That is pretty universal, and it is huge and lovely! To earn a cat’s trust is pretty darn cool.

  • Danica says:

    My cat and I do the closed eyes love you thing together. It always makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. Unfortunately after I adopted her when she was past 2 I didn’t know how sad a life she had before. She is a beautiful Calico cat but only lets me pat he occasionally and bites and scratches me. I try playing with her all the time but she often wants it and then just stands there. Had her nails cut at he groomers yesterday. She bit me hard twice and I now have damaged tissues and antibiodics. I just can’t give her away. I love her too much but I am sad. I know she loves me and I love her soooo much. She is a nightmare at the vet. etc etc etc I just don’t know what to do.

  • David Roy says:

    I’ve had cats on & off most of my life. We have four now, two from the pound (2004) and two rescued a decade ago from a granddaughter’s loving squeezes. I’ve seen a wide variety of expressions (besides fear/anger which is obvious). Petey is the most attentive to people. When he is waiting for me to come downstairs, his eyes seem to be saying, “Is it time?” If it is the time of day to sit in front of the TV but we’re not there, he meows plaintively and his eyes look annoyed. Marlee, though adopted as a kitten from the pound, has remained a bit feral and is easily overwhelmed; but when she wants affection, she has what I call her “kitten eyes” that are fully dilated, making her look ever so young and innocent, with a chirping cry. When cats are quiet, their eyes are blank; until they hear something, then the snap to attention, eyes full of interest. Question: are there any studies done on this correlating eye expressions with the neuroscience picture of the different emotional systems?

  • ariana says:

    Great info!

  • My cat Miracle will close her eyes most of the way while she sits in my lap purring softly. Another cat, P.D. lays next to me on his back.

  • Carol Visconti says:

    Oh yes my yellow male cat will look up at me and I can actually see his smile with his eyes half closed sometimes closed all the way when I pat him and talk to him. The all black female is skiddish but she will show her love by doing a little head roll tuck with her tummy up and look at me for a pat on the belly. They are brother and sister but she looks up to her bro copying his antics each chance she gets.

  • Daniela says:

    This is the first time I have a cat, and she’ll be soon 5 months old and Im obssesed reading about cats because I want her to be confortable and happy. This said, I dont qhite understand what you mean by “joint eye” when wxplaining about Annoyance.

  • Mort says:

    This is the 1st time I’m every reading this site.
    My cats name is mort and he is a black n brown tabby. When I first got him he cried all the time unless he was with me. The older he got the less he wanted to be around me. I’m 19 and love spending time with my friends and my cat and I have this wierd yet wonderful bond. I can be out all day but at night as soon as I come in I call him only twice and he comes flying in straight to my room. When I get into bed he jumps up so I can rub him then he goess to bed but in the morning he is sleeping on top of me, like on my back on my chest… Why is that??? Pls shed some light on tis topic for me…
    Thanx a mill…

  • Jules says:

    My cats eyes say get lost,leave me alone and see you later..maybe I like my privacy and my ideas are better tan yours. I love her

  • Wendalore says:

    Reaal cat says…

    May 20th, 2012, 12:35 am

    I just want to comment on what someone said, “Reaal Cat” in 2012 said
    “When you look at us and we close our eyes…it means we’re trying to avoid you. Just feed us and keep our cat litter clean…

    And everything else I’ve been reading says that, no, if you look at your cat and he/she closes her eyes, this is a way of communicating love. I think this person has been maybe thinking that this is what the eye-closing meant (it makes sense) but I just didn’t want anyone to read that here and think that it is true. At least, according to everything I’ve been reading, as I said. Anyone else agree? (The comment is just a few comments up from this one.)
    I also want to express happiness that everyone here is posting nicely. I am upset by the amount of anger and disrespect there is online, so thanks everyone!

  • James says:

    Hi Ingrid

    I’d worked the “cat smile” out for myself, but needed to confirm this for a children’s book I am writing about my cat – Pooky’s sailing adventures. I would like to introduce the idea to little ones that cats, like children, have needs and wants and rights and that it is possible to communicate with your cat. I have made a little sketch showing the cat smile if you would like to use it for this post?

    Also – is it important for the human not to smile showing teeth at the same time as “cat smiling” back at the cat? I’ve been doing this as well as when Pooky and I are playing games – does take a fair bit of practice though 🙂

  • Anne says:

    Sometimes my cat will just sit and we stare at each other. She responds to my kiss noises. Sometimes I uses that to get her to jump up or come lay with me. I noticed that when I make on single kiss noise while looking in her eyes they dialate a bit more just for a split second. The day I noticed I did it five times and it happened every time. Then she came over to love on me. Me and this cat are super bonded.

  • Ann says:

    I have four cats, and I love watching their eyes. If I look Thelma in the eyes and slowly close my eyes, she will actually begin purring and come up and rub my face. Mocha and Lewis will sometimes purr and do the slow blink in return. Chevy, on the other hand (a younger male) will look away like he is embarrassed, and start busying himself with something else! They are fascinating to watch – thank you for this article!

  • Hi
    I have a tuxedo cat who is a rescue cat. I adopted him from the SPCA about 14 years ago. this guy is living the life of Riley and he so deserves it. He had a very hard time of life before he found his Mommer!

    Buddy, will close his eyes quite a bit when I am talking to him, and he winks at me a fair amount.

    Maybe you can tell me why he does this?

  • Elyse Campus-Cohen says:

    I always had a single cat…..and they were wonderful. Now, I have 3 Black rescue cats, one male and two females…..sisters and brother….from a crazy person who had 35 cats in one room. NOW that I have 3 living with me, I see the cuddle together to sleep; I see them doing their ‘own thing’….one could be sleeping on my balcony on a single car….two can be on my bed, seperately. They love to sleep on the TV cable box for the heat and take turns to do that. I LOVE CATS…..they are cool. 😉

  • Kayla says:

    i think the look in their eyes a good way to tell what they are thinking. but you have to look at their ears too. sometimes dub step (my black cat) gets that wild look in his eyes but depending on wether his ears are folded back or standing straight up depends what hes about to do. also when his eyes are half closed and ears folded back he is VERY annoyed. so, to me, you have to look at their eyes and ears.

  • Kai Ivins says:

    I have three cats, I often close my eyes to them to see if i get an answer (I do) 🙂 but I never can seem to tell if they are annoyed at me watching them sleep or if I snuggle them too hard. But they don’t seem to run or scratch or bite me, ever no matter what I do.

  • Reaal cat says:

    When you look at us and we close our eyes…it means we’re trying to avoid you. Just feed us and keep our cat litter clean…


  • Holly says:

    I love to slowly blink back at my catgirls. We will sit together contentedly with our eyes shut, trusting and loving each other. 🙂

  • mardell anderson says:

    Why do cats close their eyes when u talk to them? Thank You…

  • Yourmom says:

    Cool. I knew that cats can talk wih there eyes. Wide eyes means they’re scared, when there like half closed they love you. and if they look a you starging they think youfr strange of course. We can talk with o eyes too. Animal not just move with your mouth. I love cats! Nya~! I good bye and have a nice day! <3 =^w^=

  • Lise Ringuet says:

    You’re perfectly right in saying that cats ‘talk’ to us with their eyes. I’ve been watching many of them over the years and I know how to communicate with them. “Normal” people take us for fools but when you’re sensitive to animals you can interact with them.

  • Tucker says:

    That is intresting, and my Cats do that. I can read there eyes like a book.!!!!!!
    Now, if people would PAY ATTENTION to what there Cats are saying,(OR ANY ANIMAL FOR THAT MATTER) like when they are warning you NOT to pick them up, or they don’t want to play right now KNOW that if they get bitten or scratched IT IS NOT THE ANIMALS FAULT, IT IS YOUR OWN FAULT, AND LEAVE THEM ALONE!!!

    My point is, is that some humans get MAD as the Animal, when it is there own damb fault!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Claudia says:

    I was a cat, who talk with her eyes, but i dont udersted all this signs at the first time. also, when we be more closed undertend all, is very interesting they really talk to us!

  • Natasha says:

    Although I don’t always know what all my cats’ eye movements indicate, I do know when they are happy, sad, mad, comfortable and annoyed. I absolutely love watching my cats, as they are brother and sister, but completely different in personality. Akira (male) is very laid back, but very skittish, whereas Mika (female) is very cuddley, energetic and curious. They compliment each other very well, and I would love to know what they are thinking a lot of the time. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to communicate on a much more intimate level than our current owner/pet relationship. These two creatures are my kids, and nothing can interfere with that.

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