Feline Behavior: Decoding a Cat's Intense Stares and Behavior

Author: K. Marie Altoby K Marie Alto Updated 13 min read

Feline Behavior: Decoding a Cat's Intense Stares and Behavior

Picture this, you’re at home 🏠 relaxing, you've been watching TV 📺 for a little bit now, you think you want a drink, so you get up and head for the kitchen. Suddenly something's off. Something feels odd. You feel watched👀, like there are eyes 👀 in the darkness staring at you😨.

The hair on the back of your neck stands up; you walk a little faster. You grab your drink and return to your seat, still feeling those eyes 👀 on you, like a predator in the shadows lurking, watching, waiting.

You sit down, and there, you see it. Eyes, in the dark 👀, glowing in the faint light of the television📺, staring 👀 unblinking at you.

"Meow," 😹 it says, trotting happily out of the dark and hopping up onto your lap to sniff at your water, poke at your face, and settle in for a contented nap.

It can sometimes be unsettling to see that unblinking, hard, focused stare👀 from your feline 🐈 companion, but there's really nothing to be worried about. They may be predators, but they sure aren't going to be hunting you. Well, a toe? Maybe.

One of the tricky parts of being a pet parent 👪to an adorable fur baby in cat form 🐈 is that they can be difficult to decode. Dogs? Dogs 🐶are easy. They growl if they're uneasy or angry, they bark if they need to alert someone or warn something off, and they come up wagging their tails with a big smile if they're happy. Cats🐱, though, are a lot more mysterious.

One of the biggest reasons people think they aren't "cat 🐱 people" is that they don't know how to interpret cat 🐈 body language, and they unintentionally misinterpret behaviors and make their own actions in a way that offends or irritates the cat.

That's why I've put together this post, specifically about those long 👀 stares and slow 👀 blinks. What do they all mean?

Spoiler alert, for training 📚 purposes, this blog post comes with plenty of demonstration 📽️📽️📽️ videos 😊!

Let's dig in.

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The Elements of the Cat Stare

Before I get started, here’s a full disclosure: First, I can’t speak cat – though sometimes I think they understand what I’m saying.

And second, there is very little scientific research or conclusive evidence on cat behavior, so all we can do is to do our best to try to interpret it. Which together with a strong bond with your cat can go a long way.

A Cat Staring at Something Image by Toe Beans

My more than 20 years of cat momma experience has taught me one thing about cat behavior: given how smart they are, they can interpret us humans better than we can interpret them.

Which makes me wonder whether they get frustrated when our actions are not in sync with their clues. I can almost hear my cats sighing while rolling their eyes at me 😊

Having said that, there are only a few aspects of a cat's facial expression that matter, but knowing how to recognize them can tell you a lot about the cat's state of mind, feelings, and appropriate behaviors.

Read More Cat Behavior Guides

The lids.

The eyelids are an important part of cat communication. If their eyes are wide open, they tend to be more alert, focused, and spirited. Their attention is on something, and their emotions might be running hot.

At the very least, they're awake and alert, but they may be distracted or looking around; otherwise, they may be focused on the object of their desire, whatever that desire may be at the time.

The pupils.

Slit pupils mean focus, usually some kind of emotion like fright, anger, or even pleasure, and a general heightened state.

Broad, open pupils, in contrast, may mean a calm and trusting emotional state unless, of course, it's nighttime, and they need the extra light to see.

However, there are some health conditions that may cause your cat’s pupils to be dilated for longer than normal, in such cases you should bring your cat to the vet.

“Glaucoma may occur naturally in older cats, but it can sometimes happen in young cats, too. Cats who have glaucoma may experience dilated pupils for long periods of time. If your cat has glaucoma, she will need to be treated for this condition to preserve her vision.” - Veterinary Emergency Group

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The focus.

Some cat stares are unfocused, haphazard, or distracted. Others are intense and unblinking like they're trying to see deep into your soul and are judging you for what they find. It's this intense stare that many people misinterpret.

Staring alone isn't enough to judge a cat's state. You also need to factor in body language and facial expression and what’s going on in the world around them.

"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."Reader's Digest

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Different kinds of cat stares will always mean different things, so it can be a good idea to learn them.

Of course, keep in mind that some cats might have slightly different interpretations and boundaries because they can be socialized differently.

Having said that, the key for every cat parent is to get to know their cats, and not just cats in general.

The Slow Blink - AKA The "Tender Twinkle" Look

One of the most iconic kinds of cat stares is the long, slow blink. I like to call this one, the tender twinkle. A cat that watches you keenly but with eyes half-lidded or slit may be performing this expression.

Cat Slowly Blinking Image by Toe Beans

Look for a relaxed and calm posture, a simple sitting or laying pose, and ears calm and unfocused. Your cat watches you, waits until they catch your gaze, and then blinks slowly at you. What could this possibly mean?

Well, as one of the most well-known cat behaviors, it should come as no surprise that it's one of the better ones to see. It’s been long theorized that the long, slow blink, coupled with the relaxed posture, means your cat likes you and is showing you affection.

On the one hand they're calm and relaxed because they're trusting and comfortable in your presence. They aren't stressed, irritated, angry, or otherwise unhappy or anxious. All in all, they're content, and they're showing you by blinking at you.

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On the other hand, let’s keep it real, the biggest question we cat parents might be afraid to get a conclusive answer to is do cats actually feel love or affection? And if so, how do they show it?

As the writer of one of the preferred educational sources for pet parents in America, I wouldn’t be doing readers justice by simply providing my opinion. My goal is to educate with researched backed information.

And, as I discuss in my blog 8 Reasons Why Cats Like to Put Their Paws on Your Face, there is a lot of disagreement even within the scientific community regarding cats ability to feel and express love.

Unlike what you might read on most cutesy blogs out there about the long stares, the truth of the matter is that cat’s long blinks may be more of a body’s response to a cozy, chill, and hazard-free environment than an expression of love.

But I’m with you, I too totally reject the notion that there isn’t even a hint of love in those stares 😊. I can totally feel it, it’s basically the reason why I call this stare the tender twinkle.

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From a wildlife perspective, predators need their sight to be aware of the things around them, so a cat doing the slow blink may be a sign of trust.

It's sort of a combination between "we're safe here" and "you've got my back" with a side order of "I love you." Cats are great, aren't they?

In fact, researchers studying cat behaviors at The School of Psychology of the University of Sussex and The University of Portsmouth in the UK, think that doing a slow blink maneuver back might even be a way to help get standoffish or anxious cats to warm up and trust you a little more!

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The study titled the role of cat eye narrowing movements in cat–human communication found evidence that cats positively respond to the slow blink from humans.

“Our results not only describe the specific movements involved in cat slow blink sequences but also produce several strands of evidence which collectively suggest that cats respond to a human giving a slow blink stimulus by producing eye narrowing movements of their own… In addition, the study produces evidence that cats perceive human slow blinking in a positive way, as subjects prefer to approach an experimenter after a slow blink interaction has occurred, compared to when the experimenter adopts a neutral facial expression without direct eye contact with the cat.” - The role of cat eye narrowing movements in cat–human communication

So, if you'd like to win over that indifferent and seemingly cold cat you've falling in love with at the adoption place or shelter, you may want to break the ice with a tender twinkle :-).

Almost-Closed Watching - AKA The "FOMO" Look

If your cat is watching you with a vague sense of disinterest, mostly asleep with their eyes only barely open, well, it means almost the same thing as the slow blink.

Almost-Closed Watching Image by Toe Beans

The difference is, with the slow blink, your cat is awake and more aware of what they're doing. The heavy-lidded or mostly closed eyes, along with a relaxed posture and some purring, generally means your cat is just happy to be there and perhaps keeping an eye on what you’re doing.

They aren't necessarily trying to express anything in particular; they're just zoning out and enjoying their time.

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You can see this a lot with cats that are basking in the sun, curling up for a nap on the lap, or otherwise relaxing.

I like to call this the FOMO look; you know fear of missing out. If you have a clingy cat that wants to go wherever you go, they might be fighting their desire to sleep to make sure they can monitor that you’re still there.

Have you ever tried to sneak away when your kitty was falling asleep, and they pop up to follow you? This is what I mean.

Focused Staring with Open Pupils - AKA The "Predator Pupils" Look

Another kind of long, focused stare happens when your cat really wants to attack, but like, in a good way.

This is the wide-eyed, butt-wiggling, ready-to-pounce staring you get when your cat is about to pounce on the dot from the laser pointer, their favorite cat toy that you're twitching around, or that toe under the covers you keep idly wiggling.

A Playful Cat Staring Image by Toe Beans

Cats are hunters, after all, and they use their keen vision to track motion and sneak up to pounce. That focused staring is getting them all of that visual information and telling them when the best opportunities to move will be. Then, when the moment is right… sproing!

Check out The Predator Pupils Look in action!

Staring and Tapping or Meowing - AKA The "Purr-sistent" Look

How often is it that you look down at your feet, across the room to a table, or just next to you while you're eating, only to see your fur baby staring at you?

A Cat Staring and Tapping Image by Toe Beans

They're probably awake and alert, their tail may be lashing back and forth, or s/he might just be curled up at your feet. They might be walking in circles or wandering around, or they might be weaving in and out of your legs.

One thing is constant, though: they're staring. Long, unblinking stares. They might even be tapping at your face or hands or even meowing at you.

In this case, two things may be going on here.

A likely explanation for this behavior is that your cat wants something. Maybe it's attention and affection. Maybe it's a bite of whatever you're eating.

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Maybe it's for you to follow them so you can let them into their favorite spot, or rescue a favorite toy, or for you to give them some scritches.

In fact, I have a good example for you. This cat, Milo, will sit next to his bed and stare at his parents until they notice. He'll keep staring until they do what he wants, which is to bring his bed to the dryer to warm it up for a bit, then position it so he can nap in a nice, cozy place. Adorable, right?

What's going on here? The stare clearly means something, and that something is that your fur baby wants something. It's more than that, though, because cats don't just inherently know what the dryer is and how it works.

Check out the Purr-sistent Stare in Action!

There's an element of training here.

"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."Reader's Digest

At some point, Milo's parents did the dryer thing a time or two, and Milo learned. Milo also learned that sitting next to the bed and staring would associate that he wanted something.

It's kind of mutual training; Milo wants what they trained him to want, and he's trained them to recognize that stare as the request.

Case in point: During her late years, our angel cat Beany used to stare at daddy at the same time every night, like clockwork. She would position herself at eye level and at about 18 inches away from daddy’s face. She then stared very intently and focused for 3 to 5 minutes. And, when the stare was not compelling enough, she would go on to meow as loudly as her little lungs allowed. Although cute, her voice had gotten very deep and raspy with age, so it came out more like an angry demand. Her stare was the clue that it was bedtime for everybody, which also meant it was dinner time for her and sister Sosa. So, we stopped our favorite tv shows short, turned off the tv and got around getting ready for bed and, of course dinner. Don’t worry, we didn’t let her get the last laugh, after training us, we trained her to confirm that she was ready for bed.

Check out our Beany, the raspy-voiced cutie:

So, before you respond to a long stare accompanied by cute kitty chirps for the first time, consider that you might be training your cat to repeat these actions in the future.

The Long, Focused Stare - AKA The "Worry Vision" Look

On the far end of the spectrum is the long, focused stare. I call this one the worry vision. It's similar to the other long, focused stares, but in this case, the body language is different.

A Wary Cat Image by Toe Beans

Your cat, instead of being relaxed, is alert and ready to bolt if they need to. They may be crouched down with their ears pointed and moving around alerted to the sounds around them, and they're usually quite still.

This is often the sign of a fearful, anxious, or wary cat. They're staring at you to watch for any sign of a threatening move.

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If you move towards them, make a loud noise, or something startles them, they'll probably run and hide somewhere they know is safe.

They're keeping all of their senses tuned to danger, and they're trying to stay as safe as they can.

As long as no danger is truly present, they'll eventually warm up to you and their situation, but it can take a little time. Stress gets to us all, right?

The Hard Stare - AKA The "Steel Stare-down" Look

If your cat is giving you a long, hard stare, but they're arched and tense, angular and ready to run or pounce, chances are they're pretty stressed, angry, and feel cornered.

A Cat Angrily Staring Image by Toe Beans

I like to call this stare the steel stare-down. Make sure to watch the demonstration video below so you can understand why.

Many pet parents never see this outside of the rare times a sick cat needs a pill they really don't want to take or the cat carrier comes out and they know it’s time for the V E T.

It’s also not uncommon if they have a furry sibling that tends to be on the aggressive side. If you have a pup that sees your kitty more as a toy than a friend, your cat may stare intently when they share the same space to ward off any undesirable interactions.

The hard stare is usually accompanied by slitted eyes and narrow pupils, and a whole lot of tense and angry body language.

They might fluff up their coat like when they are trying to ward off a larger predator, they might even perch sideways to look bigger, and they'll probably hiss and growl at you. They're very clearly not in a good mood.

Check out what I mean in this video:

If you see your cat is giving you a hard stare and appears to be tense in their body, don’t stare back at them as it can increase their stress level. In these situations, the goal is to de-escalate so your kitty can go back to a less heightened state.

You know your cat best, but in general a cat in this state is in flight or fight mode, so avoid going to scoop your fur baby up until they have had a chance to decompress. Check out my blog post on how to calm an angry kitty here.

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So, there you have it; a rundown of all of the most common cat stares and what they mean.

Did you learn something to help you better connect with your fur baby today? Do you have any funny stories about your cat staring at you? Please share with us in the comments below!

K Marie Alto
K Marie Alto

K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 50K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-). Read more

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