Cat slow blink is a signal of friendly intentions

The domestic cat’s slow blink when directed at a person it is a signal of friendly intentions. Some cat owners say that it is a sign that your cat loves you. I think that is an exaggeration. It’s more functional than that. It’s about telling the recipient that the cat is friendly and does not want any aggravation or aggression. This fits in with other friendly signals such as tail up.

Interactive slow blink
Interactive slow blink. Montage: MikeB from Pixabay images.
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This assessment appears to have been confirmed in a study in which they tested the slow blink as a form of communication between person and cat. When a person slow blinked at the participating cats they sometimes slow blinked back and were more interested in engaging and interacting with that person. I take this to mean that when a person blinks slowly they send the signal that they are friendly and because of that starting point the cat finds it acceptable to them to interact with that person because they know that they are safe and don’t want any aggravation.

Slow blink sequences typically involve a series of half-blinks followed by either a prolonged eye narrow or an eye closure [and is]…a form of positive emotional communication between cats and humans – the researchers.

Study – two parts

The study referred to involved two experiments. In the first one the owners of 21 cats from 14 different households interacted. The cats were settled and comfortable while their owners sat one meter away and slow blinked at them while their cats returned their gaze. Cameras recorded the response which showed that the cats were more likely to slow-blink at their human caregiver compared to their response when the human sat there and did not blink.

In the second experiment there were 24 participating cats from eight different households. The researchers and the cats faced one another. The person did the slow blink and extended a hand towards the cat afterwards. They found that the cats were more likely to blink back and also more likely to approach the person’s hand after the human had blinked.

Evolution from human smile?

The researchers weren’t sure where this evolved form of human-to-cat communication had come from. It may be that it has evolved from the human smile. When a person smiles their eyes close slightly. The smile is a friendly signal to people. The cat then recognises a person’s half-closed eyes as a sign that that person is friendly. Perhaps they picked up this human behaviour and learned to do it themselves to tell the human that they are friendly as well. Also, the blink disengages the stare which is a hostile signal. An action that breaks a hostile signal is deemed to be friendly.

Cats are good observational learners

Domestic cats are good learners especially by observation. They learn from their mum when kittens. They are sensitive to human cues. For instance, some individuals have learned to overlay their standard purr with a baby’s stress call with the intention of triggering a mother’s response which is naturally a caring response. The ulterior motive is to encourage the owner to provide food promptly. This is an example of domestic cats learning how to live in the human environment and make the most of it.

It would not surprise me one iota if the domestic cat had learned to slow blink people in order to signal their friend intentions or to put it another way “I’m not threatening either”. It’s a return non-threat signal to the one they receive from their human caregiver.

The study referred to was published on Oct 5, 2020 and is titled: The role of cat eye narrowing movements in cat–human communication. The researchers are: Tasmin Humphrey, Leanne Proops, Jemma Forman, Rebecca Spooner & Karen McComb. Link to the page. I have provided my thoughts as well.


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