What does a cat signal with their eyes?
A domestic cat companion’s eyes are expressive. There are probably five basic eye configurations:
- Wide-open pupil i.e. a dilated pupil with wide-open eyes
- Narrowed eyes with a narrow slit of a pupil
- Half-closed eyes with the pupil in a relaxed mid-range position
- Closed eyes
The pupil is the aperture of the eye which can be narrowed to a slit in the domestic cat (c.f. the tiger’s narrows to a smaller circle) or expanded to a large circle by the smooth muscles of the iris. The iris is normally pigmented. The pupil looks black because you are looking into the eye where it is dark. If light is directed straight into the eye perpendicular to the retina you will see green and sometimes red, a reflection of the reflective layer behind the retina (tapetum lucidum) and the blood in the retina.
The signal to an observer transmitted by the eye’s configuration is somewhat masked by the fact that the eye has to respond to light and dark conditions. When it is light the pupil is narrowed down to a split and conversely when it is dark it becomes wide-open and dilated.
This is one mood change in a cat which affects their eye configuration. When a cat see something very pleasant like a food treat or if they see something which is frightening and threatening, the eyes’ pupils will become wide-open as the muscles of the iris relax. You see these big circular orbits of blackness. The eye itself is also open and alert.
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It is as if the cat is trying to maximise the input of information through their eyes to read what is going on. The cat is experiencing a strong emotional arousal.
This wide-open pupil can also occur if a cat is frightened and panicked. A submissive cat might be in this emotional state because they have been threatened by a dominant aggressive cat which, by the way, will have narrowed eyes and narrowed down pupils.
Just before the submissive cat strikes out in defence her pupils dilate rapidly.
The eye itself to may be open when the cat is in the presence of strangers who the cat cannot entirely trust. Once again, the cat is aroused and alert. It is fundamentally the same mentality which causes this eye configuration.
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Note: a blind cat’s pupils will be fully dilated as the iris muscles do not respond to changes in ambient light.
Aggression, hunting, bright light
Under bright light conditions the pupil narrows to a split. When a cat is hunting the slit pupil helps a cat to judge depth. It also helps to minimise the amount of light entering the eye because the eyelid passes down over it like a blind.
A slit pupil might accompany a cat who is fearful, angry and aggressive and perhaps in a dominant position over a more submissive cat.
The eye itself is half closed, sometimes blinking. This is the slow blink which is meant to indicate cat love. It is simply a sign of a relaxed and contented cat in response to being normally close to their human caregiver.
Under these circumstances, the pupil can be in an intermediate position neither dilated nor contracted or at what might be at the extremes of contraction and dilation depending upon the ambient light. But it is the movement and configuration of the eyelid and the demeanour of the cat which signals a relaxed and contented cat
Prolonged staring with wide-open eyes has a special significance for the cat. It is an eye signal which indicates aggression. This is why it is said that the human caregiver should not stare at their cat. The advice is to look at your cat intently – if you love them so much – at a time when they are looking away!
The cat stare is meant to be intimidating and therefore if you stare at your cat, you might intimidate them. This does depend, however, upon the human-cat relationship and the personality of the individual cat in my experience. Not all domestic cats respond as if threatened when stared at by their caregiver. Mine doesn’t for example. He just stares at me back and is clearly content. Perhaps the important aspect here is the background mood.
If the background mood is less than conducive to cat contentment, a person staring at their cat may be regarded as threatening by the cat.
Full eye closure
Full closure of the eyes occurs in two contexts: sleep and appeasement. If two cats are fighting and one is forced into submission, it might perform “cut-off”. It turns away from its aggressor and shuts its eyes. It tries to blot out the frightening image of the dominant rival. This is said to be a protective action to save the eyes from potential danger. And it helps to reduce the tension of the moment. The victor regards it as a sign of capitulation.