Can cats smile? Yes — but they use their eyes to do it, study discovers

Researchers say humans can appear more attractive to cats by smiling back — with a “slow blink.”

PORTSMOUTH, United Kingdom — Just like with people, a friendly smile can go a long way to winning over a cat. Researchers in the United Kingdom say they’ve “purr-fected” the art of communicating with our four-legged friends. The key however isn’t smiling with your mouth, it’s smiling with your eyes.

Psychologists at the Universities of Portsmouth and Sussex reveal when humans narrow their eyes it creates something known as the “slow blink” — or cat smile. This action makes people much more attractive to felines and they often return this affection to anyone displaying it. For cats, eye narrowing movements are their actual way of smiling, even though many breeds may seem to have a permanent grin on their faces.

“It’s definitely not easy to study natural cat behavior so these results provide a rare insight in to the world of cat-human communication,” Dr. Leanne Proops from the University of Portsmouth says in a release.

Building a purr-fect relationship with humans

Cats and other animals use eye narrowing in the same way humans display a genuine smile (the Duchenne smile). (Credit: Leonardo de Oliveira from Pexels)

The study used two tests to examine how cats react to both their owners and strangers using eye narrowing to communicate. In the first experiment, pet owners use the slow blink with their pet inside their own home. The results show cats are more likely to slow blink back at their owners after receiving this signal from them. Cats also return the slow blink more often than when their owner doesn’t give them any facial expression at all.

In the second experiment, members of the psychology team were tasked with communicating with cats. These complete strangers also gave cats either a slow blink or a neutral face without eye contact. Adding to the test, the researchers then offered each cat their open hand to see if cat smiling made the felines more welcoming to the stranger. Not only were cats more likely to slow blink at a researcher slow blinking at them, they also were more likely to approach them and accept their hand.

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“As someone who has both studied animal behavior and is a cat owner, it’s great to be able to show that cats and humans can communicate in this way. It’s something that many cat owners had already suspected, so it’s exciting to have found evidence for it,” Professor Karen McComb from the University of Sussex adds.

“This study is the first to experimentally investigate the role of slow blinking in cat–human communication. And it is something you can try yourself with your own cat at home, or with cats you meet in the street. It’s a great way of enhancing the bond you have with cats. Try narrowing your eyes at them as you would in a relaxed smile, followed by closing your eyes for a couple of seconds. You’ll find they respond in the same way themselves and you can start a sort of conversation.”

Making friends with cats of all ages

The tests reveal this technique is something that works with all sorts of cats, from kittens to seniors. Of the 45 felines in the study, 22 were male and 23 female. Some live in homes with other cats while others are their owner’s only companion. They ranged in age from 17 to just a few months-old.

The study concludes that the slow blink is not only a good way to improve the bond between cats and pet owners, but can also build trust with cats still seeking a home too.

“Understanding positive ways in which cats and humans interact can enhance public understanding of cats, improve feline welfare, and tell us more about the socio-cognitive abilities of this under-studied species,” study first author Dr. Tasmin Humphrey says. “Our findings could potentially be used to assess the welfare of cats in a variety of settings, including veterinary practices and shelters.”

The study appears in the journal Scientific Reports.

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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