The eyes have it: our feline friends communicate through non-verbal signals
Have you ever wondered what is going through your cat's mind? While you may never find out its true thoughts, a cat's eyes can reveal many non-verbal signals and clues that can indicate what your feisty feline may be thinking.
'If you walk into a room as a stranger, a cat's usual response is to glance from side to side, and its pupils will dilate, going as wide as possible,' says Jackson Galaxy, a Los Angeles-based cat behavourist since 2002. 'The cat is looking for an escape route. And, as a predator and prey at the same time, it always has to be on guard.'
Whenever the cat behavourist meets an unfamiliar cat, he employs an amazing blinking technique to relax the feline. 'By assuming a posture that is completely non-aggressive, I try to establish a line of communication with a slow blink. I'm trying to say that I'm not a threat,' says the resident cat expert on Animal Planet's television series Cats 101. He adds cats will usually relax and return the blink.
Roger Tabor, British television cat expert and chairman of the British Naturalists' Association, says cat blinking developed as a reassurance signal to other felines. The signal informed nearby cats that the situation didn't warrant aggression and 'it's alright to settle down and relax'.
By studying the habits of feral cats for more than 30 years, Tabor says felines need a way to indicate their intentions around other cats, unlike dogs that naturally have a non-verbal vocabulary for submission.
'Dogs are social animals that hunt and kill together, so they have a system that says 'I give up and don't kill me' to an aggressive, dominant dog. But, apart from the lion, the bulk of cats and their behaviour is all about the self,' says Tabor, who has written 10 books on cats, including The Wild Life of the Domestic Cat.
According to Tabor, when feral cats have a local food source, there are suddenly social problems. Thus, as an aberration, feral cats become social animals that need to coexist. As a cat begins to relax within the group, he adds, 'the eyes get heavy and shut down ... they can only do that if the bad guys are not around. So if there are other cats in a feral group, a cat will react to another with a 'I know you and I can blink'.
'It's a long, lingering blink with its face down. It's like a yawn that is contagious. The other animal will expect that [the first blinking cat] is in a relaxed state and will blink back.'
If you want to get your cat's attention by looking at its eyes, Tabor says don't get offended if it won't look back. 'They are very good at looking away,' he says. Tabor explains a cat might look away as a part of a displacement activity. If it is looking around, or licking its paw, it may be deliberately not looking at you to evaluate whether you are a threat (humans can be seen as threats, as well as other animals).
'If the cat shows that it's engaged with you, it must do something. It's also powerful trick when they hunt,' says Tabor, who is also a fellow of Britain's Canine and Feline Behaviour Association. In the wild, some of the cat's prey will feign death after it has been captured. To check if the prey is truly dead, the cat will pretend to look around as if not paying attention to its prey. 'When we look at our cats, it can appear quite rude to them. They might see it as a threatening behaviour,' Tabor says.
Instead of a round pupil, cats have a slit-like iris that better controls the amount of entering light on its sensitive retina, Tabor explains. 'Cats can see about six times better than us. You have more fine control with a slit and once you have that capability, if you are frightened you can open your eyes wide. You can see from many directions - it's useful if you are being attacked,' Tabor says. Cats have an estimated 200-degree view compared with 180 degrees for humans.
As cats are nocturnal, the slits also adjust faster to changes in light, expanding and contracting in one direction compared with a round pupil that has to reduce and enlarge in two dimensions, according to Tabor.
'While they have little colour vision, it's a waste of space in your eye if you have to see more at night [to hunt]. They can see all shades of grey ... and they have a much sharper depth of field which helps if they are frightened or just about to attack.'