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Why does my cat stare at me?

Why does my cat stare at me?

gray and white cat staring

“It’s rude to stare!” I’m sure there was a time my mother said those words to me, and I know I’ve whispered them to my own kids.

 

In human society, staring is just plain bad manners. If someone stares at us, we feel a variety of uncomfortable emotions: uneasiness, annoyance, worry. We’re positively unnerved by staring.

 

Many species of animals, on the other hand, stare unabashedly. In the absence of verbal language, cats often stare as a form of communication.

 

But we humans, who are flustered when stared at by anyone, even our own pets, need answers. Quora, a question-and-answer website, is flooded with questions about staring cats. “Why does my cat stare at me for a long time after I have fed her?” “If a cat is staring at me, what is going through its mind?” “Why does my cat stand in the doorway and stare at me?” And finally, “How do I get my cat to stop staring at me?”

 

I would argue that none of us really just want the staring to stop. What we want is to understand what our cats are trying to tell us when they stare. And, we want to be able to respond to them. Read on to find out why your cat may be staring at you.

 

 

 

Your cat finds you fascinating

 

gray cat staring

Well, fascinating might be a relative term. In truth, your house cat's home environment can be uninteresting, especially if nothing ever changes. But you are doing something every minute! You move, you talk, and dispense food.

 

Cats are like detectives on permanent stake-out. They are interested in your every move. They watch you making a sandwich. They watch you brushing your teeth. They watch you watching TV.


Your cat has devoted himself to learning about you and becoming fluent in your body language. Who knows when you might produce something he wants, like food or attention? Actually, your cat may know what you’re about to do even before you do, and he’s ready for whatever it is. Your cat may also be watching you for subtle signs that all is well with the world. Are you anxious or tense? Your cat probably feels he can relax when he knows that you’re relaxed.

 

Is it a little stalkerish? I’d rather think of it as your cat getting a PhD in you, which is more flattering. You're the most interesting thing your cat has going on. Soak it in.

 

Your cat has you trained

 

cat with blue eyes staring

No, they don't use a clicker and treats, but cats do train their owners. Stare long enough and your cat knows you will do something in response. Maybe you'll start a conversation ("Hi sweetie? What do you want? Do you need your litter cleaned? Do you want me to play with you?"), and attention is all your cat wanted.

 

Maybe you'll go through the whole repertoire, tossing toys and checking the litter box and changing the water in the dish, and then finally, finally, offer your cat a treat. And maybe that's what your cat wanted. Only she knows, but chances are the staring will stop when you hit upon it.

 

The bottom line is that our cats rely on us for everything: food, shelter, affection, entertainment, and comfort. Left to his own devices outdoors, a hungry cat or a bored cat can take matters into his own hands. Indoors, he has to ask you for what he needs. Cats stare when they want you to open a door, or clean the litter box, or serve dinner. And with responsive (aka “trainable”) owners, staring seems to work.

 

Your cat isn’t really staring; she’s sleeping.

 

 

Sleeping with eyes open is actually a really common behavior for cats.[1] During the earliest phase of the sleep cycle, the lightest phase, many cats will have their eyes open. It’s possible this behavior is a holdover from a time when your house cat’s wild ancestors needed this extra bit of alertness to improve their survival in the wild. As your cat drifts into deeper sleep, her eyes should close.

 

Your cat is sick

 

This is an extremely uncommon reason for what looks like staring, but I feel a need to mention it. Some diseases that mostly afflict older cats, including kidney failure, heart disease, and untreated hyperthyroidism, can cause high blood pressure, which in turn can damage a cat’s eyes.

blood pressure cuff

 

Let’s back up. A cat’s regular blood pressure is 120 mm Hg, just like a human’s healthy blood pressure. If a cat’s blood pressure soars (to over 180 mm Hg and beyond), the retina at the back of the eye can detach from the globe. A detached retina makes the pupil dilate and appear reddish. So, it may look like your cat is staring, even if he is not.[2] You’ll know your cat is unwell because her pupils are constantly dilated (rather than everchanging in response to light) and your cat’s gaze isn’t fixed on a particular target.

 

A cat with this symptom needs immediate veterinary care.

 

Your cat is hunting you

 

I just said that a staring cat isn’t stalking you, but maybe she is. Play stalking that is.

 

A 2013 study on house-cat genetics revealed that that domestic cats share 95.6% of their DNA with tigers, even though their evolutionary paths diverged 10.8 million years ago.[3]

 

tiger cat staring

But unlike a wild tiger, your cat has probably never had to hunt for his own food. And while most house cats are probably glad they don’t have to stray far from their cozy cat beds for a meal, hunting is an instinctual cat behavior. Your cat might not rely on his hunting skills for survival, but he’ll still practice stalking and attacking. It’s healthy physical and mental exercise for a cat.

 

What does this have to do with staring? Cats are visual hunters and they survive in the wild by hunting prey in dim light. Their vision has developed specifically to be able to keep track of fast-moving critters in low light. But this hunting style necessitates that they lock eyes on their target.[4] It looks like staring.

 

Read more about how cats’ eyes are highly adapted for hunting here

Did you know that a cardboard box helps meet a cat's instinctual need to hunt? Check out our awesome, cat-safe boxes here. 

 

Cats actually have a third eyelid, known as a nictitating membrane. This membrane acts a windshield wiper, removing dirt and debris from the eye and keeping it moist. It allows cats to focus on one thing for a surprisingly long period of time without looking away. You could say that a cat’s eyes were designed for staring.

 

But your ankles, they were NOT designed for play stalking. Cat owners everywhere beware.

 

Your cat is gearing up for a fight

 

 

 

Direct eye contact is an important form of communication between cats. A hard stare can be the first stage in a confrontation. You’ll know the difference between a play-stalking stare and cat who means business by reading her body language. A cat who is not just having a little fun will display a stiff body with pinned ears, and a tail that whips back and forth.

 

Other cats know immediately what this means.

 

Read more about how to properly introduce cats here

 

If that stiff body and twitching tail is being directed towards you, consider yourself forewarned. An angry hiss should make his aggressive intent pretty clear, if it wasn’t already.

 

The best thing to do is to avert your gaze. Show the cat you are not a threat.

 

cat staring

Reading a cat’s body language is an important skill to develop. Scientists have actually developed a “facial action coding system” for cats called CatFACS (there’s a similar one for humans). Researchers took 275 video recordings of 29 cats in a Canadian shelter, trying to find a relationship between the expressions on a cat’s face and its behavior, with the hope of understanding a cat’s emotional state.[5]

 

They determined that cats who are enjoying a “relaxed engagement” with you have a “right gaze and head turn bias.” In other words, cats who are feeling relaxed in your presence might turn their head to the right just a hair while staring at you.

 

Study your cat while he studies you. If you see that little right turn of the head you might think twice before asking the Quora community how to make the staring stop.

 

_______________
FOOTNOTES

 

[1] “Do Cats Sleep With Their Eyes Open? [What Owners Should Know].” Pet Educate, 5 Sept. 2020, peteducate.com/do-cats-sleep-with-their-eyes-open/.

[2] Lewis, Tanya. “House Cats and Tigers Share 95.6 Percent of DNA, Study Reveals.” The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor, 18 Sept. 2013, www.csmonitor.com/Science/2013/0918/House-cats-and-tigers-share-95.6-percent-of-DNA-study-reveals.

[3]Lee, Justine, DVM, DACVECC, DABT. “Why Does My Cat Stare at Me?” Dr. Justine Lee, 31 Aug. 2015, drjustinelee.com/why-does-my-cat-stare-at-me/.

[4] Youens, Lizzie, BSc BVSc. MRCVS. “Why Does My Cat Stare at Me?” Vet Help Direct, 25 May 2020, vethelpdirect.com/vetblog/2020/05/27/why-does-my-cat-stare-at-me/.

[5] Bennett, Valerie, et al. “Facial Correlates of Emotional Behaviour in the Domestic Cat (Felis Catus).” Behavioural Processes, Elsevier, 21 Mar. 2017, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0376635716303321.

 

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