06 November 2020

Communicating with Cats

Are you striving for a stronger bond with your cat? Would you like to make friends with cats you may encounter? Do you want to learn the secrets of communicating with cats? Science has found the way!

Welcome back. I haven’t blogged about cats in more than a year. You may see no reason to end that drought, but a new study stirred my interest. I thought it might stir yours, too.

Gazing behavior has been suggested to be a form of communication in dogs and other domestic species, such as goats and horses (see blog posts: Dogs and Us, Looking at Goats, Horses Don’t Forget). Although the communicative abilities of domestic cats (Felis catus) have been relatively understudied, one anecdotally reported behavior is the slow blink sequence. This sequence involves a series of half-blinks (eyelids move toward each other without closing) followed by either prolonged narrowing of the eye aperture or a full eye closure.

The cat slow blink sequence (left to right): neutral face, half blink, eye closure, eye narrowing expression (from www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-73426-0).
Researchers with the UK’s Sussex and Portsmouth universities conducted two experiments to explore the significance of slow blink behavior.

Cats and Their Owners
For the first experiment, the researchers examined if the owners’ slow blink stimuli would elicit slow blink sequences from their cats.

The researchers tested 21 cats (11 female, 10 male; average age 7 yrs) from 14 households. All were indoor cats with outdoor access and had been living with their owners at least 3 months. The cats were tested at home with their 14 owners. Tests of 3 of the 21 cat-owner pairs were outliers and dropped from the final analyses.

Each cat was tested with both a slow blink stimulus condition and a no human interaction condition. For the former, owners sat approximately 1 meter in front of the cat and performed the slow blink action when the cat gave direct eye contact. Owners repeated this procedure until the end of the trial, which lasted 2 minutes or until the cat departed. For the control, no human interaction condition, the owner remained in the room with the cat but did not sit in front of or interact with the cat.

Video of the tests was used to code cat’s eye movements in accordance with CatFACS, an anatomically based system to measure facial actions based on underlying muscle movements. The owner’s eye movements were coded according to the original FACS (see Facial Expressions Addendum). One additional code, eye narrowing, was included.

Cat and human eye movements and corresponding FACS
action units
(from www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-73426-0).

The rates of each cat’s individual eye movements (half-blink, blink, eye closure and eye narrowing) were compared across the slow blink and the no human interaction conditions using a series of linear mixed models.

Cat demonstrates eye narrowing technique (photo by Karen McComb, from www.sussex.ac.uk/staff/newsandevents/?id=53423).
Cats and Unknown Person
The second experiment examined if the slow blink stimuli of an unknown person, a researcher, would cause the cat to approach.

They tested 24 cats (12 male, 12 female; average age 6 yrs) from 8 households. Six were excluded from the final analyses due to data outliers.

The trials began with the researcher, seated or crouched opposite the cat, offering the cat a flat hand, palm upward to observe the cat’s baseline level of approach tendency. After a few seconds, the researcher retracted her hand and adopted either the slow blinking stimulus or the control condition, a neutral expression without eye contact.

Each trial lasted one minute, after which the researcher again offered her hand for a few seconds and the cats’ responses were monitored. Between trials, there was an interval of approximately 2 minutes.

Behavioral coding and statistical analyses were the same as for first experiment, except that normal reflexive blinking was omitted. Based on the first experiment, it did not appear to be part of the slow blink sequence.

Wrap Up
The cats responded to the slow blink stimulus significantly better than to the control conditions. Their rates of eye narrowing and half-blinks were faster and the scores of approaching the researcher’s hand were higher.

Frequency of cats’ responses (avoid, neutral, approach) in relation to condition (slow blink stimulus or neutral); cats had a significantly higher approach score following slow blink condition compared to neutral condition (from www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-73426-0).
Overall, the study produced evidence that slow blink interactions are a positive experience for cats and could potentially be used to assess their welfare in a variety of settings (e.g., veterinary practices, shelters) as well as enhance communication at home. Try it. And thanks for stopping by.

Cat eye communication study in Scientific Reports journal: www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-73426-0
Article on study on Miami Herald website: www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/article246318635.html
University of Sussex news release on study: www.sussex.ac.uk/staff/newsandevents/?id=53423
Cat Facial Action Coding System (CatFACS): animalfacs.com/catfacs.html

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