Many years ago, when I was working with Bebe, a feral cat who grew to become a much loved family member, I struggled with getting her to trust me. I worked with her in a way that would’ve tested the patience of the slowest snail, but I knew the only way to win her over was to let her set the pace.
After months of slow and steady behavior modification, something miraculous happened. Bebe rubbed up against me. I wanted to jump for joy but of course knew that would certainly not be the appropriate response, so I just sat perfectly still. She rubbed her face along my bare foot and then my pant leg. I felt my heart beating wildly in my chest and hoped she didn’t hear or sense it. I forced myself to take long, slow deep breaths in order to remain calm. After working with her day after day, this was the moment I had been waiting for.
Each day, after I had entered the room, waited patiently for her to come out of hiding, did an interactive play therapy session and then offered her food, she would gingerly walk over to where I was sitting on the floor and rub my leg. I kept my arms at my side and was hoping she would come up and rub against my hand but no such luck. She wouldn’t risk coming that close. Immediately after rubbing my leg she would turn around and bolt back up to her perch where she’d peer at me through the makeshift forest I had created by attaching artificial branches to her cat tree. Her eyes dilated and her ears almost going into airplane wing position, she was a mass of confusion. Our brief interactions always left her a little unsure.
One day, after our typical routine had played out and she was safely back in her cat tree, I noticed something. She was looking at me, but this time, her eyes and ears were very relaxed. For Bebe, this was highly unusual. There was something very soft in her gaze and then she did IT… she ever-so-slowly blinked her eyes. I very slowly blinked my eyes back at her. Many behavior experts refer to the slow-blink as the cat’s version of a kiss.
After we had exchanged this first “cat kiss” I continued to sit on the floor. Bebe’s eyes slowly closed and then she went to sleep. She had never before felt comfortable enough to nap while I was still in the room.
That cat kiss was just the first of many that she would give me as we continued to work together on trust-building. Bebe lived with us for 17 years and although I have exchanged countless slow-eye-blink cat kisses with many cats over the years, Bebe’s kisses were the most precious because I knew how hard it was for a feral cat who had been horribly abused by some neighborhood residents, to trust a human being.
Do Cats Really Kiss With Their Eyes?
A cat’s eyes are so expressive and can tell so much about how she’s feeling at that moment. Whether a slow-blink is actually a cat’s take on a kiss is perhaps open for argument, but many in the behavior field, including myself, believe that in the right environment, it is a sign of calming and yes, affection.
When evaluating the slow-blink cat kiss, it’s crucial to take the immediate environment into consideration and be accurate in your observation of what the cat is relaying with her eyes. For example, a long, direct stare from one cat to another may be meant for intimidation purposes. Narrowed eyes with ears at half-mast are certainly not displaying love and affection at that moment.
A slow-blink cat kiss is a totally non-aggressive display that may be meant to display affection toward another human or animal family member. In an outdoor setting or multicat environment it may be part of the body language used to display to others that that all is calm and that the cat is not a threat.
If you watch how your cat uses her eyes you’ll start to notice the difference between a regular, alert eye blink and a heavy-lidded, relaxed, slow eye blink. Another cue to look for is that the cat’s face is relaxed. The whiskers will be hanging loosely on either side of the muzzle and you won’t see tension in the facial muscles. Pay attention to the whole body language in order to become more adept at cat speak.
Return the Kiss to Your Cat
When your cat gives you a slow-eye-blink kiss, return the favor by offering her a slow blink as well. You can even use the cat kiss technique on unfamiliar cats as long as you’ve read their body language correctly. Just don’t mistake a hard stare for a cat kiss. Become more fluent in cat speak and you’ll probably find that you’ve been getting “kissed” more often than you realize.
Need More Information?
Due to Pam’s scheduling demands, we’re sorry but she is unable to respond to questions or remarks posted in the comment section. If you have a question about cat behavior, you can find many answers in the articles Pam writes for the website as well as in her best-selling books.