June 16, 2021

Looking at Cats Looking at Me

by Peggy Moran/ all photos by the author


My observation regarding my cats’ observation of me.

I live with five house cats who all get along quite nicely; no fighting, hissing, biting, or inappropriate elimination. I was recently hanging out with them, taking advantage of being able to lounge around in bed, when I began noticing how much “face time” they each offer me. Specifically, I was observing how much eye contact they point my way, and how much it contrasts with how they interact with one another.


They are certainly socially aware of each other, and they communicate clearly and effectively. They interact, sometimes cuddling, reciprocally grooming, or playing, and sometimes voicing annoyances; but they never really seem to look each other in the eyes for any sustained duration. At the most there are passing glances, though I’m sure much is clearly communicated in those instances. I also know if they had more cantankerous interactions between them, there would be the cat stare-downs of the defensive sort, but these cats don’t do that.

So anyway, I was thinking about this, because I spend a lot of time capturing and reinforcing eye contact from dogs I train. In dog training, waiting for eye contact and sequencing it to shared, cooperative activities, such as chasing toys or ‘hunting’ for hidden treats, results in dogs proffering LOTS of eye contact; looking at me PAYS.

I’ve had no specific intention to train my cats to offer eye contact, but clearly I’ve done so. They look at me with long, querying (hopeful?) gazes they never offer each other, because I behave in non-cat ways they benefit from. I speak to them in a questioning manner and wait for them to ‘answer’, then I touch them if they want, or I name things they like and follow through with delivery.

This is pretty standard learning-theory stuff; some classical conditioning (when->then) and operant conditioning (when->if->then) patterns quickly and obviously emerge and come to fruition for the cats. It pays way better to observe me than one another.

They have learned my potentials as a delivery system. They have also learned to offer specific vocalizations, as well as eye contact, to prompt me, which I’ve shaped by being very reliable in response. I speak to them about specifics, and then I deliver what I’ve spoken about. So, like the sound of the popping top of a “meat can”, they know what’s coming next.

When I make a promising suggestion and wait for a reply, they meow at me while maintaining eye contact. They then gaze at what they want, then back at me. Training 🙂 Two of the cats, brothers Pouncey and Purrcy, communicate with specific meows as well as eye contact: two meow-syllables for ‘water’, and one meow-syllable for ‘food’. ‘Hunting’ (with the laser light stored in my bedside table) gets the most intense response from Purrcy, with prolonged focus and darting glances at the table while lying on my chest as close to my face as he can get his face, making little, urgent-sounding, lip-raised meows. If I say “hunting” and look at the table he animates, meowing more intensely and leaping to the floor where the other cats race to converge at the spot on the floor where ‘hunting’ begins.

None of this is surprising or profound, and I’m trying not to be excessively anthropomorphic.

But one part does get my attention and has piqued my curiosity. Now the cats are offering much more extended eye contact in situations other than those where they have experienced direct reinforcement. They have begun offering what I associate with the service dogs I train: generalized checking-in behavior. They will come and offer me a long look, seemingly not glaringly intent on getting anything back, often after the rolodex of tricks I’m performing for them has already played out and they are in lazy, needs-met cat mode. They just seem curious about ‘reading’ me. They maintain prolonged eye contact, then come “purr up” (face rub) or sniff my breath, then lie down near me or upon me. Purrcy carefully ‘combs’ my hair with his claws, never stabbing me, staring–dare I say it?–lovingly at me.

Beyond the operational elements of a training interaction, they are socially inclusive in an enhanced manner. I have taught them to look longer and deeper to receive interested, aware care from me of a sort they don’t experience the same way from one another. It is a uniquely anthrozoological relationship.

And I may be seeing what I want to see, but this is what it looks like: they have learned to look more deeply, at first for the average self-serving reasons–I deliver touch and food; but then beyond that, more socially and inclusively.

I don’t think they are thinking about what I think, or care about my human concerns. They live cat lives, doing cat stuff, for cat reasons. But I do think they are mirroring, or modeling, or offering more focal cat-attention back to me, that they have learned from me, and they do observe in an affectionate, not just getting, manner.

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