Have you ever noticed that your cat will look up at you and slowly blink its eyes?
While you might have dismissed it as a behavior incidental to sleepiness, many cat lovers insist that this slow blink is a “kitty kiss.” That might be a little, shall we say, poetic, but the slow blink is an important form of feline communication that you can use to form a more intimate relationship with your pet.
The Science of the Slow Blink
Whether or not the slow blink is actually a gesture of affection is up for debate. Cats possess complex body language that we're still trying to decipher.
Just like a human, a cat's facial expressions can reveal a lot about what’s going on inside its head. Reading a cat’s expressions isn’t always intuitive, but you can learn quite a bit if you pay attention.
Despite all their napping, cats are characteristically alert. They constantly scan the environment (e.g., the living room) and react to stimuli with their customary haste (read: pouncing on your feet as you walk by). During the slow blink, your cat feels so comfortable, it lets down its guard, and puts itself in a vulnerable position.
Some argue that the slow blink is a gesture of trust, much like when your cat shows you its belly. Your cat trusts that you won’t attack or harm him or her, so it expresses its comfort to build connection. In fact, the slow blink is used by those who work with cats at shelters to determine if the cat can be handled safely.
This behavior isn’t just used by domestic cats. Larger felines like lions and tigers do it, too. It’s one of the most common instances of social behavior among cats of all types, from munchkins to jaguar.
The slow blink is a type of “buddy” behavior that you’ll commonly see among cats who are friendly with each other. If you watch closely as they greet each other, you’ll notice this happens shortly before nose bumping and body rubbing.
Research on whether the slow blink is actually an affectionate gesture is inconclusive. After all, cat-human communication is still a relatively new branch of study. Some researchers have argued that the gesture is caused by low physiological arousal (specifically lowered cortisol levels) and to attribute any higher-level psychosocial meaning would need its own study.
Return the Slow Blink
When you see a cat slow blink at you, make sure to return the gesture. Think of it as a sort of greeting; it opens an intimate, non-verbal dialogue that nurtures your bond.
Face your cat and slowly close your eyes as if feigning sleep, gently open them, then break eye contact. Holding direct eye contact with your cat can be interpreted as a threat, so it’s best to begin to look away as you open your eyes from the slow blink.
Once you get it right, you’ll have shown your cat that you’re friendly and relaxed.
After returning the slow blink, you can take things a step further by extending your hand slowly while looking away. Your cat will feel more comfortable if you view them indirectly (using your peripheral vision) rather than head-on.
If your cat dips its head or begins rubbing your hand with its face, it's inviting you to pet them. But don’t get upset if your cat walks away instead. The primary purpose of the slow blink is to acknowledge your friendly presence.
Use the Slow Blink with Your Cat
The slow blink is a great way to strengthen the cat-human bond, especially with a new feline companion. It can be particularly useful if you’re caring for a cat that doesn’t like to be handled or had a rough start in life. If you notice your cat displaying the slow blink behavior, it likely means it's becoming relaxed and getting used to its new environment.
This simple, often overlooked gesture will give you some insight into your pet’s state of mind. The slow blink may or may not be the “I love you” that some propose it is, but it can be a great way nurture the bond between you and your cat and open new avenues of communication.