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Why Do Cats Stare?

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Cats are famous for staring — at you, at the world outside a window, at the wall and sometimes at nothing at all. Indeed, cats are curious observers, and here’s a look into why they stare.

One of cats’ most striking features are their eyes. These ocular attributes amplify their reputation for staring and make them possibly the most photogenic species on the internet and here’s why:

Cats have enormous eyes compared to the size of the rest of their body.

Cats’ eyes blink about twice a minute, while human eyes blink around 15 to 20 times per minute.

A cat’s vision differs from ours. Compared to humans, cats are nearsighted. Average human visual acuity is 20/20. That means when our visual acuity is tested, we must see at 20 feet the same detail that average people see at 20 feet. Feline visual acuity ranges between 20/100 and 20/200. That means that the detail an average human can see from 100 to 200 feet away, a feline can only see clearly from 20 feet away. What looks clear to us at 100 feet away looks blurry to a cat.

What they lack in visual acuity, they make up for with other advantages.

The more numerous rods in their retinas enable them to see in one-sixth the amount of light we need to see.

Cats also have a wider field of vision at 200 degrees, compared to that of humans at 180 degrees. Cats are wired to see movement of the tiniest insect or speck of dust up close. Combined with their superior peripheral vision, cats are more likely to fixate on something we may not notice

Cats have adapted to human habits and use human signals to obtain information. Cats not only notice a person’s gaze, they can actually follow it.

They hear everything

Why do cats stare at a wall or seemingly nothing at all? Actually, much goes on in walls. If walls could talk, they would tell of the myriad plumbing and electrical conduits they conceal, not to mention the insects and other critters that may have found their home in them.

Have you ever noticed how cats know when someone is at the front door before you do? Cats’ sense of hearing is much sharper than ours. The extra muscles and shape of their ears enable them to pinpoint and amplify sounds. Cats hear the slightest sounds of everything going on in our walls and beyond them from leaves rustling and critters scurrying to people walking and talking outside.

Hunting requires patience

Cats are curious and learn by watching their world. In her 2005 study titled “Caregiver Perceptions of What Indoor Cats Do ‘For Fun,’” published in the Journal  of Applied Animal Welfare Science, animal behaviorist Melissa R. Shyan-Norwalt concluded that indoor cats on average spend up to five hours each day looking out of a window.

Outdoor cats exhibit this same amazing patience when they are on the hunt. If you’ve ever watched an outdoor cat hunt, you would marvel at their innate ability to sit quietly and stare at something until the perfect opportunity presents itself and they pounce.

They love you

If you’ve ever tried to make eye contact with an animal at a zoo, you may have noticed that many wild species do not comply. Some animals see eye contact as a threat or a challenge. Many animals interpret someone staring at them as a sign of aggression.

Looking into a human’s eyes is something only a domesticated companion animal would do. So, it’s no wonder that this attribute of the human-animal bond piqued the interest of researchers.

In a review of multiple studies, researchers from the Laboratory of Human-Animal Interaction and Reciprocity at Azabu University in Kanagawa, Japan, concluded that even though cats are solitary hunters and dogs are pack animals, the two species are similar in their bond with humans today. Both dogs and cats have adapted to human habits and use human signals to obtain information. Cats notice a person’s gaze and actually follow it.

“In the future, cats may acquire more dog-like abilities, such as more consistent and expressive gaze,” wrote the researchers in “The Gaze Communications Between Dogs/Cats and Humans: Recent Research Review and Future Directions,” published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2020.

The studies they reviewed showed that “dogs and cats have their own adaptive communications that may have provided the basis for their mutually beneficial coexistence with humans.”

Cats wouldn’t stare at someone they fear or dislike. So, when your cats stare at you, take it as a sign of trust and love.

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