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How to Do the 'Cat Smile' and Make Cats Fall in Love With You

For both cats and people, the eyes may be the way to the heart.
For both cats and people, the eyes may be the way to the heart.
Photo: Oli Scarff (Getty Images)

Scientists say this one weird trick will make a cat like you, or at least not be so repulsed by you.

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A new study found that cats who were greeted with “cat eye narrowing movements”—more commonly known as slow blinking—became more likely to return a similar expression to their owners or even strangers than when given no interaction or a neutral glance. The cats in the study also became more likely to approach strangers following a slow blink. The results, the authors argue, indicate that slow blinking can help people establish “positive emotional communication” with felines.

Researchers in the UK finagled dozens of household cats with healthy eyesight for a pair of experiments. In the first, 21 cats belonging to 14 owners were tested in their homes. The owners were instructed on how to slow blink, defined by the researchers as a series of half-blinks where the eyelids never fully close on one another, “followed by either a prolonged eye narrow or an eye closure.” Then the owners, placed no more than 3 feet away from their cats, either avoided interacting with the cats (the control) or played out the slow blink sequence.

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The cats, the first experiment found, were significantly more likely to narrow their eyes following their owners’ slow blinking than they were in the control condition (only a handful of cats closed their eyes fully under either condition, so it wasn’t possible to tell a difference there).

The second experiment, carried out with another 24 cats not used in the first, featured the same basic set-up but with a stranger instead of the owner. The cats were also tested on whether they would walk toward the stranger. This time, the cats were more likely to approach the stranger following the slow blink than they were when the stranger flashed a neutral expression with no eye contact made.

The study’s findings were published in Scientific Reports this week.

Cats who were given a slow blink by an unfamiliar human were more likely to approach them afterward than when first given a neutral expression, the study found.
Cats who were given a slow blink by an unfamiliar human were more likely to approach them afterward than when first given a neutral expression, the study found.
Image: Humphrey, et al/Scientific Reports
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The notion of slow blinking being a way into a cat’s heart is hardly new, and it’s long been an anecdotal tip that popular cat behaviorists and other cat fans have offered up. Scientifically, domesticated animals like dogs, horses, and certain livestock are known to respond to human facial cues. Though cats aren’t quite as outwardly friendly to their owners as canines, more evidence is starting to emerge that they can clearly develop an expressive social relationship with humans. But according to the authors, this is the first experimental evidence suggesting that slow blinking can have a relaxing effect on how cats interact with humans, given that cats became more willing to approach a stranger.

“We show that slow blink interactions appear to be a positive experience for cats, and may be an indicator of positive emotions,” they wrote.

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Less certain is exactly why cats seem to like seeing slow blinking from us and why they respond in kind. One theory voiced by the researchers is that cats are only responsive to slow blinking because they can tell that their owners responded positively in the past when they did it. In other words, they may only like it because they like us, so to speak. That’s less likely an explanation, the authors wrote, because the same basic pattern still played out when a stranger slow blinked in the experiments, rather than a cat’s owner. It’s possible there’s something about the slow blinking itself that is soothing for a feline. Since it’s thought that cats perceive long direct eye contact from others as threatening, for instance, the slow blink sequence may have evolved as a strategy for cats to know that the situation isn’t meant to be tense.

Cheddar ‘Chiz’ Cara, the only cat to be awarded an Ig Nobel prize three years running.
Cheddar ‘Chiz’ Cara, the only cat to be awarded an Ig Nobel prize three years running.
Photo: Ed Cara
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Whatever the explanation, the authors say it’s yet more evidence that cats really can enjoy the presence of humans. However, they add, “further research would be necessary before coming to firm conclusions about the emotional state associated with slow blinking/responding to slow blinking.” 

Indeed, even if slow blinking does turn out to be a handy way to smile back at your cat, there may very well be some cats who simply don’t respond to it, just as there are idiosyncrasies in human-to-human communication. Case in point, my own cat, who has become more friendly and loving since being found abandoned three years ago but still carries the same blank expression on his face no matter how many times I slow blink at him.

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Science writer at Gizmodo and pug aficionado elsewhere

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DISCUSSION

blazekingnj
BlazeKingNJ

This is something most people who’ve had a cat for over 10 years eventually picked up on their own after watching the cat do it to them.