The meaning of the domestic cat’s slow blink is a signal, through body language, that the cat trusts and is relaxed in the presence of the person to whom the blink is directed.
That’s my opinion and I am falling short of the anecdotal suggestion that the slow blink is a message that the cat loves you. But perhaps it is fair to say that in the harsh world of the predator to show trust in this way is akin to showing love. Also when you pet a cat they close their eyes. This is an extension of the slow blink. It is taking it a step further both for the person and the cat. Cat slow blinking is often followed by other displays of affection such as asking through body language to be carried or petted.
My cat’s slow blink
He just turned up from the outside, jumped on my bed and plonked down. I thought I’d try and get him to slow blink and I think you’ll agree he obliged. It is not a perfect slow blink but good enough.
Dogs and cats
Companion dogs have a muscle around their eyes which raises the eyebrow to give us that puppy dog look which melts the heart. Cats have a cold stare but they also have the slow blink and a cute baby-meow which is employed when they really want something. The slow blink and baby-meow is the feline equivalent of puppy dog eyes.
You don’t read about the slow blink it scientific books about the domestic cat. Dr Bradshaw in Cat Sense does not mention it. The excellent The Welfare of Cats doesn’t either and nor does Dr Desmond Morris in Catwatching. But Jackson Galaxy has a section on it. Jackson is a very intuitive cat lover. He gets into the head of cats from the experience of a countless number of interactions with cats as a cat behaviourist. And he focuses on the natural cat, the wild cat emotions under the domestic cat veneer.
Jackson’s take on the slow blink
Jackson refers to a cat behaviourist and the author of The Natural Cat, Anitra Frazier, who received slow blinks from cats behind windows in New York when she ‘softened her face and gazed at the cats’. These cats had never met Anitra and they were behind glass and yet they recognised that she was safe and to be trusted. It is about the body language and general demeanour of the person approaching the cat.
Jackson’s reading of this is that when cats slow blink they are revealing their vulnerability. Their eyes are shut for a short while indicating that the cat has lowered their guard because they trust the person. They would not do it in the wild. Perhaps like the meow it is a behaviour exclusively reserved for human companions.
So we can agree that the feline slow blink is a reserved demonstration of affection and a signal that the cat feels able to be vulnerable. In order to encourage this feline state of mind Jackson approaches cats who he has not met before by slow blinking human-style. This tells the cat that the human before them is also vulnerable and non-threatening. Jackson considers this demonstration of trust by the person to be key to building trust in the cat. The opposite is to stare into the eyes of the cat.
One person, perhaps it was me, suggested that the blink is also a way for the cat to break up the cold, apparently unfriendly, feline stare. Perhaps the role of the slow blink is also to avoid the stare. It might have this double role.
When done by a person it is important that they don’t stare during the blink but gaze, writes Jackson. The difference between a gaze and a stare is fairly obvious but if you are unsure, work on it! The gaze begins with a relaxed face and mentality. Exercises to relax the face might be of use but I will leave that to the experts.
The slow blink interchange between cat and person is, in Jackson’s words ‘about learning a new language (for the human)’. Cats won’t always return a human slow blink with a feline one. A partial return is a success and if there is initial failure, try again after a pause and perhaps a little further away from the cat.
Meeting a cat
Finally Jackson has devised the three-step handshake (human to cat). Step one is the slow blink during which the person is entirely non-threatening. Step two is offering the cat an object that smells like the person; something personal covered in the person’s scent. Step three is uniquely the work of Mr Galaxy as far as I know. He suggests that the person uses the ‘one-finger handshake’. Let the cat sniff your finger as they did the object and then touch the cat with the finger ‘between and just above the eyes’. Allow the cat to push their head into the finger if they desire. You can then rub their nose up to the forehead. You have a friend and one who trusts you.
P.S. This is my second or third attempt at discussing this topic 😉 So if you see another article on it you’ll know why.