by Barbara George – Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
Cats use their eyes for seeing, and for communication. Half-closed, staring, wincing, contracted or dilated pupils all give messages. Direct eye contact is threatening, while closed eyes indict trust, or sleep. Slow blinking is somewhere between the direct stare and closed eyes.
A quick blink is used to lubricate their eyes, or when there is a sudden change in the light intensity. Slow blinking puts the cat in a vulnerable position as it lowers his alertness for a short time, and he might miss a significant movement or signal. Thus, it is a sign of friendship and trust, of feeling safe in the moment.
Cats may use the slow blink when greeting other cats of the same family, or sub-group in a multi-cat household or rescue centre. They will also use this subtle communication to let us know they are comfortable in our presence right now – that can change in an instant!
Catching and identifying a slow blink is a memorable moment, as the cats may blink when we are not watching closely enough. The meaning of the blink is confirmed by the rest of the cat’s body, relaxed, comfortable, and the eyes are soft with appropriately-sized pupils for the light conditions.
Returning the slow blink will let your cat know you understood the message, and are returning the compliment. Relax your eyelids to almost-closed, open your eyes slowly, then turn your head to break eye contact, so as not to ruin the message by appearing aggressive and confrontational! Watch out of the corner of your eye to see the reaction, if any; it may be another slow blink, a stretch, an exhale of breath, or a roll-over for a cuddle.
Slow-blinking is a gentle way of introducing yourself to a new cat, especially one that is cautious or feeling unsocial. It involves a connection, and understanding, without encroaching in their space.
This behaviour is not restricted to our small cats, large cats like lions, tigers, and jaguars use it too, though it is not recommended to try this on your own with wild animals!
To contact Barbara, please email firstname.lastname@example.org