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Feline Friendly? A new psychology study shows how to build Rap-Paw with your cat

A cute kitty

A team of psychologists from the Universities of Sussex and Portsmouth have purred on the art of bonding with cats.

The new study, “The Role of Cat Eye Shrinking Movements in Cat-Human Communication,”

; published online at Nature magazine Scientific reports, demonstrated for the first time that it is possible to build a relationship with a cat by using an eye narrowing technique with them.

This eye-narrowing action by humans generates something popularly known as a cat smile – the so-called “slow blink” – and appears to make the human more attractive to the cat. Eye narrowing movements in cats have some parallels with genuine smile in humans (Duchenne’s smile), as do eye narrowing movements given in positive situations in some other species.

The team, led by Dr Tasmin Humphrey and Professor Karen McComb, animal behavior scientists at the University of Sussex, undertook two experiments.

Maine Coon cat

A Maine Coon cat showing narrowed eyes. movement.
Credit: Prof. Karen McComb University of Sussex

The first revealed that cats are more likely to blink slowly at their owners after their owners watch them slowly, compared to when they don’t interact at all.

The second experiment, this time with a researcher from the psychology team rather than the owner, found that cats were more likely to approach the experimenter’s outstretched hand after slowly blinking the cat, than when they adopted a neutral. expression.

Overall, the study shows that this slow blinking technique can provide a form of positive communication between cats and humans.

The study found:

  • Cats were more likely to blink slowly towards their owners if their owners had slowed their eyelids towards them, compared to when the owner was present in the room but did not provide a slow blink stimulus.
  • Cats were more likely to blink slowly when an unknown experimenter blinked slowly, than when they had maintained a neutral expression.
  • Cats preferred to approach an experimenter after slowly blinking the cat rather than if they kept a neutral expression.

Professor Karen McComb, of the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex, who oversaw the work, said: “As someone who has studied animal behavior and owns cats, it’s great to be able to show that cats and humans can communicate in this way – something that many cat owners have already suspected, so it’s exciting to have found evidence.

“This study is the first to experimentally investigate the role of slow blinking in cat-human communication. And it’s something you can try yourself with your cat at home or with the cats you meet on the street. This is a great way to improve the bond you have with cats. Try narrowing your eyes to them as you would with a relaxed smile, followed by closing your eyes for a couple of seconds. You’ll find they respond the same way and you can start some sort of conversation. “

Dr Tasmin Humphrey, a doctoral student at the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex at work, was the first author of the study. He said: “Understanding the positive ways cats and humans interact can improve public understanding of cats, improve feline well-being, and tell us more about the socio-cognitive abilities of this little-studied species.

“Our findings could potentially be used to assess the welfare of cats in a variety of settings, including veterinary practices and shelters.

As for why cats behave this way, it could be argued that cats developed slow blinking behaviors because humans perceived slow blinking as positive. Cats may have learned that humans reward them for responding to a slow blink. It is also possible that slow blinking in cats started as a way to interrupt an uninterrupted gaze, which is potentially threatening in social interaction. “

Dr. Leanne Proops at University of Portsmouth, who co-supervised the work, said: “It is by no means easy to study the natural behavior of cats, so these results provide a rare insight into the world of cat-human communication.”

How the experiments worked

Two experiments were conducted to explore the significance of slow blinking in cat-human communication.

The first experiment included a total of 21 cats from 14 different families. Fourteen different owners participated in experiment 1. Ten of the cats were male and 11 were female, with the cat’s age ranging from approximately 0.45-16 years. The experiments took place in each cat’s home. The psychologist advised the cat owner how to slow down the blink. Once the cat is settled in one place, the psychologist asked the owner to sit about 1 meter away from the cat.

Experiment 2 included a total of 24 additional cats. Twelve cats were male and 12 were female, ranging in age from 1 to 17 years. The cats included in the final analyzes were from eight different families. In this experiment, the researcher, who was unfamiliar with the cat, either blinked slowly or adopted a neutral face with no direct eye contact. This experiment also tested the context in which cats preferred to approach the unfamiliar experimenter, offering the cat a flat hand with the palm facing up while sitting or crouching directly in front of the cat. Both experiments were video recorded.

Psychology of the cat: the existing context

In the new paper, the authors provide context for their findings. The psychology of cats has not been studied as thoroughly as dogs, but what is already known includes:

  • Cats have been shown to effectively attract and manipulate human attention through “purring stimulation”.
  • That cats can distinguish their name from other words, even when they call out unknown humans.
  • That cats can be sensitive to human emotional cues and rub or bang their head against an owner who is feeling sad.

“The Role of Cat Eye Shrinking Movements in Cat-Human Communication” by Tasmin Humphrey, Leanne Proops, Jemma Forman, Rebecca Spooner and Karen McComb, published in Scientific reports, it is open access.

Reference: “The Role of Cat Eye Shrinking Movements in Cat-Human Communication” by Tasmin Humphrey, Leanne Proops, Jemma Forman, Rebecca Spooner and Karen McComb, October 5, 2020, Scientific reports.
DOI: 10.1038 / s41598-020-73426-0

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