Staring is rude — but our feline companions don’t have any qualms about displaying this behavior. For cats, it would be bizarre not to stare. They peer fixedly at each other. They eyeball potential prey and other items of interest. They stare down their pet parents, often without blinking.
So, you might wonder: why does my cat stare at me?
Experts say that staring is a way for cats to figure out the workings of their world and communicate what they’re thinking and feeling. You can learn to interpret your cat’s wide-eyed gapes by considering the context and noticing other non-verbal cues. And, as it turns out, cats have a lot to tell us.
Cat Non-Verbal Communication
Research suggests that cats have lived alongside humans for at least 10,000 years as pest controllers and companions. But remarkably, we only scientifically began to study cat behavior a few decades ago — and there are many things we have yet to understand about our feline friends.
We have learned that cats communicate in several ways: through vocalization, body language, tail movement, and of course, eye contact. For instance, an angry cat might hiss, stand with an arched back, thrash his or her tail, and stare with dilated pupils. A happy cat, on the other hand, might purr while maintaining a relaxed body posture and an upright tail with a soft curve at the end. He or she might also hold your gaze while slowly blinking.
So when trying to figure out what your cat is saying with their wide-eyed looks, you always need to consider your kitty’s other non-verbal cues. It’s also essential to think about context, says Jane Ehrlich, a feline behaviorist based in Arizona and owner of Cattitude Feline Behavior.
“Has the cat just been fed? Has the cat been sleeping all day, and you think it may want food?” asks Ehrlich. “When the cat is staring at us, what is the body language? You don’t take one aspect of body language and make an assumption — you take in the whole thing.”
Mikel Delgado, a cat behavior expert at Feline Minds and author of the forthcoming book, “Play with Your Cat,” takes a similar view.
“It’s impossible to know by just a stare what your cat wants,” says Delgado. “You have to take into consideration what else they are doing — are they relaxed, active, agitated?”
Why Does My Cat Stare at Me?
Nicholas Dodman, a professor emeritus at Tufts University and the chief scientific officer at the Center for Canine Behavior Studies, says that a cat stare isn’t always about communication.
“They stare at prey when they’re in hunting mode,” says Dodman. “And sometimes they just stare at things, objects. They might stare at a wall because they hear something inside the wall, and they’re scanning and trying to triangulate with their ears, but their eyes are focused on the spot, too.”
But a cat often stares to communicate something. Experts say it often has to do with one of four things: contentment, aggression, curiosity, or boredom.
When cats are content, their stares are often accompanied by slow, steady blinks — sometimes called “cat kisses.”
Scientists have confirmed that a cat’s slow blink is a form of positive emotional communication between feline and human, particularly when you blink back at your cat.
Delgado says that when we blink at our cats, we can put them at ease.
“That lets them know you’re friendly and trustworthy,” said Delgado, “and often, they will blink back.”
Ehrlich says that people commonly interpret a slow blink as the cat saying, “I love you,” but she questions this interpretation.
“I think the cat is saying, ‘I’m comfortable with you,’ which is huge anyway,” says Ehrlich. “It’s our human lens that says, ‘we need to feel loved,’ so we’re going to get any signal we can and translate it into, ‘Oh, the cat feels affection and love for us.'”
Dodman notes that research has shown that when dogs and humans gaze at each other, both parties release oxytocin, often referred to as the “love hormone.” While Dodman says he isn’t aware of any similar research on cats, Dodman hypothesizes that mutual blinking would generate similar effects.
“Cats only look directly into the eyes of the people they trust and love,” he says. “I imagine they’re having a chemical reaction inside their body — a release of this neurohormone — oxytocin — which is bonding in both directions.”
In some situations, a cat may stare at you because they’re frightened, leading them to act defensively.
“Say a veterinarian is trying to make friends with the cat — ‘Here kitty, kitty’ — and sort of walks up to it while it’s on the floor of the practice,” says Dodman. “The cat might back itself into a corner and look at the person directly because it doesn’t want to take its eyes off this threatening target. In that case, the pupils are dilated — widely dilated — big black holes — and the ears sometimes press back. Body posture is tense — they often draw their legs into the center, almost like an elephant standing on a platform in a circus, and the tail might get puffy.”
But a cat might also stare at you in a more predatory way. Maybe you’re sitting in their favorite spot, and they’re feeling territorial. Or perhaps they simply don’t like you.
“If a cat has it in for you … they hold the look, their pupils are slits,” says Dodman. “Their ears would probably be forward, and tail would be low and slightly swishing from side to side, and … they kind of walk like a model, with one foot in front of another, and slowly advance on you.”
Whenever this happens, watch out! A cat might be getting ready for a confrontation.
According to Dodman, cats may stare at their pet parents as they try to figure out what they’re doing.
“My cat does that sometimes,” he says. “I’ll be at the sink washing up, and water’s running, which is an attraction to the cat, and she comes up to see what’s happening … but then I’m doing something with a dish, and I’ve got a dish scrubber in my hand and she kind of looks at me [and seems to say], ‘What on earth are you doing?’”
Ehrlich says that feral cats may stare at humans to suss us out.
“I think a reason they still stare at us is to check out if we’re OK, because it’s natural that we are still a predator,” says Ehrlich.
Ehlich adds that ferals tend to stare less as they become more comfortable in your presence.
“I find that as the feral gets closer to me, she stares a little bit less,” she says. “So it seems like the amount of time of staring has decreased as trust has increased.”
Cats will also stare when they’re bored. Or hungry. Or both.
“My cat will stare at me when he wants something to happen,” says Dodman. “Something happening could be, ‘Here, I’m over here. Have you noticed that it’s time for you to feed me? Did you think about that? I’m here. Can you see me?’ Or sometimes you wake up in the morning and find that your cat is right above you staring right at you, and that means, ‘Get out of bed,’ and it usually also means, ‘and feed me.'”
Ehlich says that if a cat knows that he or she will get food when they stare a you, he or she will continue to do it.
“It’s back to the old: I do this behavior, and I get this response,” says Ehrlich. “So I don’t think there’s a mystery there.”
Should You Worry About Cat Staring?
Delgado says that if you notice a significant change in your cat’s behavior, this could indicate that something is wrong.
“If your cat is showing other signs of distress, such as hiding, not eating, hissing or growling, or not using the litter box, it’s worth making sure there isn’t a medical issue by taking them to the veterinarian,” says Delgado.
Ehrlich says that you should also be on the lookout for changes in your cat’s staring behavior.
“If her staring has changed at all — is it longer, shorter, wider, or have the pupils changed sizes? — then I would check it out,” says Ehrlich.
Older cats can also get feline cognitive dysfunction, or FCD, which some experts think can cause them to fixate on objects or simply into space. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), FCD affects more than 55 percent of cats between the ages of 11 to 15 and more than 80% between the ages of 16 to 20.
But in most cases, there is nothing you should worry about. If you catch your cat staring, it’s just a cat being a cat.