Why Does My Cat Stare at Me?
Look at your feline friend's mannerisms to figure out why your cat stares at you
Cats have many seemingly odd behaviors, and it’s not unusual for new owners to question quirks like why cats knead or what triggers cat zoomies. They also have a reputation for being aloof. So when you’re trying to concentrate on an online work meeting, it’s disconcerting to find your feline friend’s eyes boring into you unrelentingly. There’s a good chance you’re asking yourself, Why does my cat stare at me? It’ll be a relief to know your cat isn’t usually plotting its next nefarious move.
But what is going on in the mind of your hard-to-read kitty when it’s focusing fixedly on you? Do you have a content, bored or angry cat? If only it could talk! Well, we’ve got the next best thing: animal behavior experts who can decode this common cat behavior.
Alison Gerken, DVM, a veterinarian with the San Francisco SPCA Behavior Specialty Clinic, explains that although humans consider staring to be impolite, that’s not the case for cats. In fact, she says, “accepting the staring as an opportunity to better understand your cat will strengthen the pet-parent bond.”
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Do cats try to communicate with their humans through eye contact?
Research shows that the eyes are a crucial communication tool for cats. “One study found that some cats would look to people when they were unable to solve a puzzle to get food, presumably to get help,” says Janet Cutler, PhD, a certified animal behaviorist. Another study shows that slow blinking and eye-narrowing are friendly actions. Changes in pupil dilation, the direction of its gaze and the position of its eyelids can all help you interpret what your cat is trying to say.
But while the eyes might be regarded as the windows to the soul, Cutler explains you can’t look at a cat’s peepers in isolation. “They use a lot of different body language,” she says. The ears, facial muscles, posture, fur and tail all communicate with people and other animals.
Why does my cat stare at me?
If your cat’s staring is becoming compulsive, you’ll want to work out if it’s something to worry about.
Denise Johnson, DVM, a certified cat behavior consultant, explains that staring itself is fairly nonspecific. She advises evaluating your cat’s posture and the context of the situation to interpret its motivation. “Are they leaning in and up or leaning away and down? Do they look soft and squishy or angular and tense?” A loose, relaxed body is a sign of affection, for instance, while a tense posture is a sign of fear.
Pupil size is another variable to consider in a staring cat. “Dilation may be a sign of stress or an imminent playful pounce, depending on the context,” she says. “Remember that a playful cat can be low and sneaky but should have ears pointed forward to their ‘prey’ rather than looking like a scared snake themselves.”
Here are some common explanations for your cat’s unswerving eye contact.
If your cat is trying to convey affection, its eyes will often be almond-shaped and squinty, and its pupils will be thin slits. Compared with a confrontational hard glare, staring while slowly blinking is a sign a cat trusts you.
Happy body language, and possibly purring, accompanies this unquestioning look of love. Your cat “will have an overall loose, relaxed body with their limbs extended away from the body, ears facing forward in a neutral position and their tail upright, possibly curled at the tip in the shape of a question mark or extended outward behind them if they are lying down,” Dr. Gerken says.
Now’s the time to cuddle up on the couch and enjoy a bit of a love fest.
You may be unintentionally training your cat to stare at you. “Many pet parents, when being stared down by their cats, may respond by feeding, talking to or petting them,” Dr. Gerken says. “In doing so, cats learn that staring leads to something fabulous.”
Think of staring as a subtler version of incessant meowing, pawing or rubbing up against you. The more you offer the desired attention immediately following their staring, the more likely they are to do it.
Sometimes, these naturally curious creatures might just be wondering what you’re doing. “Because humans do not speak the same language as cats, there are a lot of things that people do—hug, dance, unpack the groceries—that cats may find very baffling,” Dr. Gerken says.
If you’ve just welcomed a rescue kitty into your home, you’ll need to give it the space and time it needs to decompress and relax. You may find it staring at you from a distance. “Intense, unwavering eye contact may indicate they are unsure of you or your actions,” Dr. Johnson says.
Agitated or fearful cats typically have widened eyes with dilated pupils. They “may be tense or crouched, with their limbs held close to or underneath their body, and ears rotated to the sides or pinned backward,” Dr. Gerken says. She mentions that their tails will typically be “straight down, tucked between their legs, coiled around them and/or twitching or swishing back and forth.” You might also see their fur bristle and puff up on their body (what’s known as piloerection).
When you aren’t respecting the space an anxious cat is asking for, it can become aggressive. Don’t push your luck if your cat gives you a hard, unblinking stare. It may be trying to tell you that you’re doing something it doesn’t like and you shouldn’t come any closer.
In addition to hissing, growling and lip-licking, a stiff posture can point to a cat’s anger. “An angry cat will have stiff posture [and] ears flattened to their head. They might be twitching their tail or have it tucked, and they may have their mouth open,” Cutler says. “You can also sometimes see the typical Halloween posture in cats that are angry, with an arched back and fur standing up.”
“Cats instinctively hide or mask pain and illness, so any subtle changes in body posture or behavior may be a sign that a cat is in pain or sick,” Dr. Gerken says.
Staring blankly (at you or into space) is a common symptom of older cats with cognitive dysfunction or feline dementia. Although many cats become cranky or retreat into themselves when in pain, some may seek comfort, which could be another reason for staring at you.
Dr. Gerken says that if your cat starts staring off into space, it’s time to consult a vet. This is especially important if vomiting, diarrhea or decreased energy, engagement, social interaction or appetite accompanies the staring.
What should you do if your cat is staring at you?
Konstantin Aksenov/Getty Images
Now you have the tools to answer the question “Why does my cat stare at me?” And that means you can determine if there’s an underlying issue your cat needs support with or if it’s just a case of deciding whether you want to put up with attention-seeking eyeballing. Here are your options, depending on the situation.
Give them space
We all want to comfort our cats if they are afraid, but hard staring is typically their way of telling you to back off. You don’t want to ignore the situation, but punishing them or trying to pick them up for a cuddle could make things worse.
Give your cat the space it’s asking for, and try to remove any stressors in the environment. Let it come to you when it is comfortable, and encourage positive experiences from a distance with toys and treats. If you continue to have a scaredy-cat, consider calling in a certified animal behaviorist. These professionals can formulate a plan to help support you both.
“If a pet parent does not want to participate in a staring contest with their cat, then they must ignore the staring when it’s an ask for something,” Dr. Gerken says. In other words, don’t give your cat treats, play or affection when it stares at you. Reserve those for times when your cat does a behavior you want to reward and encourage.
Make time every day to give your affectionate cat some love, but wait until it isn’t staring so you’re not encouraging the behavior. And if it seems bored or under-stimulated, introduce interactive puzzle toys, cat perches, scratching posts and other forms of feline enrichment. Cats love boxes, and this is an inexpensive and environmentally friendly way to keep kitties entertained. Plus, boxes offer a hiding space to retreat to.
Look at them lovingly
Finally, embrace reciprocating the lovey-dovey looks. “If a cat slowly blinks with their stare, then a pet parent may return the ‘eye kiss’ to show mutual affection and love,” Dr. Gerken says. Slow-blinking before averting your gaze and backing away can also help communicate to a fearful cat that you aren’t a threat.
What does it mean when a cat stares at another cat?
You probably know what it means when cats lick each other. But they may also stare at each other, and for a totally different reason. “Staring can be very confrontational for cats,” Dr. Johnson says. “It may also occur during social play, though this is less likely to be the case when the cats in question are adults.”
So, should you intervene or take any action? Possibly. “If you catch your cats staring at each other with any regularity, it may be worth increasing the availability and distribution of resources in the home to reduce tension,” she says. “The more resources, the easier it is to avoid each other when they feel the need to.”
What does it mean when a cat stares at an object?
Sometimes it’s not just a question of why your cat is staring at you. Your curious cat may direct its stare at objects as well. It’s usually not a cause for concern, but there are some things to watch out for.
For example, if your cat is staring at the walls in your home, it might be in prey mode, tracking a shadow or slivers of light. With its sensitive hearing, it may even hear something you can’t (hopefully not vermin in your walls). That said, staring absently, appearing confused or acting out of character could be a sign your cat is unwell and that it’s time for a trip to the vet.
By now, you should be able to answer the question “Why does my cat stare at me?” Keep learning more about your kitty by finding out why cats sleep so darn much.
- Janet Cutler, PhD, certified applied animal behaviorist
- Alison Gerken, DVM, veterinarian with the San Francisco SPCA Behavior Specialty Clinic
- Denise Johnson, DVM, International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants–certified cat behavior consultant
- Journal of Comparative Psychology: “A Comparative Study of the Use of Visual Communicative Signals in Interactions between Dogs (Canis Familiaris) and Humans and Cats (Felis Catus) and Humans”
- Scientific Reports: “The Role of Cat Eye Narrowing Movements in Cat-Human Communication”