Cat Chat: All About the Eyes

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At the tender age of 31, I got my first cat. I adopted her to keep my dog company; he had terrible separation anxiety.  A year later, I adopted a second cat as a companion for my first cat.  I fostered a litter of kittens that spring and saw how much happier and active my cat was with other cat company. I kept one of the kittens and Valerie treated him like her baby, pinning him down to give him baths and stepping out of the way when he wanted to eat her food.

We are a now a ragtag little family of 4 (that’s me) 2 cats and 1 dog in a 600 sq ft apartment. Even now I feel like I barely understand the cats and I’m still learning their ways. I did not realize how much cats like to climb, perch and scratch. I don’t understand why they like to do what they do.  After a year and a half of living with cats it’s occurred to me that having a cat is like having a wild animal… that shares your living room.

I’ve been reading about Cat Psychology to try and put some actual learning and logic to the cat behavior I see them exhibiting every day.  My co-worker loaned me a book  called Making Animals Happy written by Temple Grandin. One fact I was not surprised to learn is that cats have changed very little from their closest wild ancestor – the African Wild Cat (AWC). Physically, their brains are a little smaller but often aesthetically, you can’t  tell the difference between a domesticated house cat and an AWC.

African Wildcat

African Wild Cat

My older cat  has 2 distinct personalities. “Benevolent Valerie”  is the cat that greets me when I come home from work. Affectionate, purry, insistent on being petted and scratched and she always leans in for a kiss. Her round yellow eyes gaze peacefully at me, her pupils are constricted appropriately according  to the light.

annie mclaughlin

Then there is “Crazy Valerie.” My first tip off that she has gone nuts and is in an unpredictable, swing from the ceiling kind of mood, is that her pupils are HUGE! I wondered,  is there any correlation between her behavior and the size of their pupils? Turns out there is!

Cats do not have  expressive faces like dogs do, they don’t have eyebrows and will often just stare at you blankly before something catches their attention and they are onto the next thing. It is theorized that cats have a small capacity for facial recognition, meaning, they don’t really read your expressions just like it’s hard to read theirs.

With cats, there is a little information to glean about how he’s feeling  from the expressions that take place above the shoulders. I was so fascinated with all that I was reading that I decided to turn “Cat Chat” into a series and go over each and every body part your cat uses to communicate with you. Starting with…

Your cats eyes are the windows to their mood!

Cats eyes are beautiful aren’t they? They can see at one sixth the level human eyes can, that means they make out pretty well in low light. Cats cannot see in total darkness and they don’t see in full color the way we do. This has to do with the amount of cones and rods in a cat’s eyes.  Dogs and cats have two kinds of cones that are sensitive to blue and green light, so they see a muted color palette of greens, blues and shades of grey, black and white.

Dilated (large) pupils often indicate an excited cat, it can also be a display of a surprised or scared cat depending on the situation. It is not unusual for a cat’s pupils to fully dilate when they are really excited.

Constricted pupils can indicate your cat is agitated or angry. I have also noticed constricted pupils when Valerie tries to give the baby cat a bath and he bites her and tries to play fight with her, obviously she is trying to get something done and he is not cooperating. The fight escalates and after an angry swat, there she sits with puffed up cheeks and constricted pupils.

Squinty eyes are a sign of affection, relaxation and trust. Have you ever tried squinting at your cat? Do they squint back?

Cats also use their eyes to establish the pecking order. A dominant cat will stare into his opponents eyes while a more submissive cat will look away.

Cats also have a third eyelid that is scientifically called the “nictating membrane.” If necessary, this third eyelid can cover and protect the whole eye. It is usually no more visible than a small white or pink sliver in the inner corner of the cat’s eyes. If you can see more than a sliver of the third eyelid this can be an indication that your cat is dehydrated or ill and may need to see the vet.

The best way to read your cat is through his or her cat body language as a whole, next Cat Chat I will go into ears and whiskers, which work in conjunction with your kitties eyes to communicate mood.

Have stories or questions to share? Leave me a comment below – Thanks!

12 Responses

  1. Enlace says:

    Wonderful blog! I found it while browsing on Yahoo News. Do you have any tips
    on how to get listed in Yahoo News? I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there! Thanks

    • Annie M says:

      Hi Enlace, Thank you! I didn’t know it was featured on Yahoo news? I don’t know how that works but now I’m going to do some investigating :)

  2. Ankita says:

    This was an amazing article.. Thanks for writing this article, it helped me to understand my cat even better. I am planning for a new cat as a companion for my older one, these tips will be of great use to me. Thank u!

  3. Garnet Handerson says:

    Hello, I just stopped in to visit your blog and thought I’d say thank you.

  4. Andy Jorgensen says:

    I have four cats 1 is 11 and the others are 10. Mama and her kids. The one thing that I have learned over the years with cats. They allow you to exist in their realm. It is just to service them at their bidding. It is by mutual agreement that we derive great pleasure from on another. I would not know how to live in a house without cats. Cats are truly mans best friend.

  5. Maya says:

    Thank you for this awesome article! I hope my mommy learned something new so that she can understand cats better – they’re a bit trickier than us dogs. Oh oh, squirrel…gotta go!

  6. Donna G says:

    Great information on communicating with your furry friends. I have 2 adult cats (9 yrs.) and 2 young ones (9 mo. & 14 mo.) that are also very expressive with their eyes. I’ve found that a slow blink at them elicits a return blink and better bonding with all of them. Cats rule!

  7. Tootsie says:

    My current cat and I have good communication between us. When I invite her to my shoulder she stares at me as if she wants me to coax her so I put my face in front of her so she can rub her scent around my mouth. We call it “rubby-rubby”. She starts purring then steps up to my shoulder. When she wants to play she looks at her stick with a furry tail then at me all but saying “let’s play”. I’m lucky, I seem to be able to “read” animals.

    • Annie M says:

      That’s adorable! Does she puff out her tail when she tells you she wants you to play with her?
      I’m slowly learning to read my cats too, I guess I am just so used to dogs and they are so easy to read,
      cats are a whole other beast but they are so great!

  8. Forrest says:

    Liked the article, could help me alot considering my cat is an outdoor cat!

  9. dot davis says:

    What great information. Thank you. I have two cats a boy and a girl. thegirl is the dominant one. I lovethemand we have great fun times together. They arebothindoot cats.

  10. Mary says:

    Great to hear the love in your voice as you tell about your cats!
    ( please disregard the first comment; used the voice recognition which obviously didn’t work this time!)