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Why are you not supposed to look cats in the eye?

Cats are enigmatic creatures. Their behaviors and mannerisms have long fascinated humans, but we still don’t fully understand them. One of the most well-known cat behaviors is their aversion to direct eye contact or staring. Cats seem to view prolonged eye contact as threatening or aggressive. But why is that? Here are some of the main theories behind this quirky feline trait.

Cats See Eye Contact as a Challenge

In the cat world, direct eye contact is often viewed as a challenge or threat. When two cats cross paths, they typically avoid direct eye contact to signal that they are not a threat to each other. However, when two cats are preparing to fight, they will stare intently at each other as a way to threaten their opponent.

So when a human stares at a cat, the cat may interpret this as an act of aggression or intimidation. The cat does not understand the human is simply being friendly and making eye contact. Instead, the extended eye contact triggers the cat’s innate “fight or flight” response. To a cat, a staring human is essentially asking, “Do you want to fight?” This is why cats often react to staring by freezing, running away, or even attacking with claws or teeth bared.

Cats rely heavily on body language and eye contact to communicate with each other. So it’s not surprising that they attach meaning to prolonged eye contact with humans as well. While the meaning is lost in translation, the cat’s reaction demonstrates they do not typically like direct staring.

Territorial Response

Staring can also trigger a territorial response in some cats. In the wild, prolonged eye contact is associated with predators or competitors encroaching on a cat’s territory. When cats feel their territory is being threatened, they may react aggressively to scare off the “intruder.” Indoor house cats can display the same reaction when stared at, even though they are not protecting an actual outdoor territory. The stare activates their innate territorial defense mechanisms.

Sign of Dominance

Staring straight into a cat’s eyes can also be perceived as an attempt at dominance. In cat language, the dominant animal is typically the one who maintains direct eye contact. So when a human stares unwaveringly at a cat, the cat may see it as the human trying to assert dominance.

The cat will usually react by breaking eye contact first. By looking away, the cat is essentially submitting to the human’s dominance display. Some cats may challenge back with aggression though, especially if they have dominant personalities. Either way, the staring is viewed as the human trying to claim alpha status, which makes cats uncomfortable.

Cats Do Not Understand Human Eye Contact

A major reason cats dislike direct eye contact is they do not understand its meaning and purpose in human culture. In human social settings, eye contact serves many important purposes, including:

  • Showing interest
  • Connecting emotionally
  • Signaling attention
  • Displaying confidence
  • Reading facial cues

Maintaining eye contact while conversing or interacting is considered normal, friendly behavior in our society. But cats simply do not grasp these nuances of human eye contact. They view it through a strictly feline lens.

Eye Contact Triggers Instincts

When humans stare at cats, it involuntarily triggers their natural instincts and behavioral patterns. Even if the person means no harm by it, the sustained eye contact kicks in the cat’s instinct to defend its territory, avoid potential threats, and communicate dominance. This happens at an instinctual level, even in domesticated house cats. They react based on innate wiring, not a true comprehension of human eye contact behaviors.

Prolonged Eye Contact Can Feel Threatening

Eye contact that is too direct, intense, or prolonged can make cats feel extremely uneasy and vulnerable. While brief eye contact is usually tolerated, a penetrating stare is viewed far less favorably. Here’s why cats often find lengthy stares threatening:

Invasion of Personal Space

Cats value their personal space. When a person stares fixedly at a cat from close range, it can feel like an invasion of the cat’s personal bubble. This triggers discomfort and agitation.

Hunting Response

A long, unblinking stare resembles the gaze of a predator hunting its prey. This can frighten the cat by making it feel targeted. Cats generally don’t like feeling like the hunted party.

Releases Stress Hormones

Studies show that eye contact stimulates the release of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress and anxiety. Too much direct staring can literally stress a cat out on a biological level.

Feels Trapped

Prolonged staring may essentially trap the cat in an interaction it doesn’t like. The cat feels unable to break away from the confrontation when eye contact is maintained. This loss of control causes anxiety.

When is Staring Most Upsetting?

Certain situations make cats feel more bothered or threatened by direct eye contact. These include:

Being Approached Head-On

When a person walks directly toward a cat while staring at it, this can feel like a very aggressive approach. The cat cannot see if the human is friend or foe, which is scary.

In a New Environment

Cats who have just been adopted or moved into a new home are often very anxious and defensive as it is. Staring will only magnify this unease with the unfamiliar surroundings.

While Grooming or Sleeping

Cats feel especially vulnerable while grooming themselves or sleeping. They do not like to be watched intensely during these activities. It interrupts their sense of safety.

While Using the Litter Box

No cat wants to be stared at while using the litter box! They deserve privacy during this time, so it’s best not to violate that.

Certain Cats Are More Sensitive

While most cats dislike direct eye contact, certain cats are extra sensitive. These cats are more likely to react badly to staring:

  • Fearful or timid cats
  • Feral cats
  • Abused cats
  • Cats with anxiety
  • Down’s syndrome cats
  • Elderly cats

These cats are generally more defensive and higher strung. Staring can elicit an exaggerated reaction, like aggression or running away and hiding. It’s important to be extra mindful when interacting with sensitive cats.

Tips for Making Eye Contact with Cats

While cats generally prefer to avoid direct eye contact, you can make them more comfortable with gentle, respectful eye contact using these tips:

Slow Blinks

Slowly blinking at a cat mimics a calm cat’s behavior and helps them see you as non-threatening. Keep your eyes only partially open and slowly close and reopen them.

Break Eye Contact First

Don’t engage in long staring contests. Break eye contact first so the cat feels it “won” the nonverbal exchange.

Look Away at Times

Make a point to periodically break eye contact and look away, which gives the cat a “break.” Don’t stare nonstop.

Don’t Face Head-On

Avoid approaching straight on. Come from an angle instead, which feels less confrontational.

No Wide Eyes

Don’t open your eyes really wide, which can seem crazy or deranged to a cat!


Offer a friendly wink instead of a full stare. Most cats don’t mind this gesture.

Blink Normally

Blink normally and quietly without clenching your eyelids, which seems aggressive.

Watch Body Language

If the cat shows signs of discomfort like ears back or twitching tail, break off eye contact.

Signs a Cat Finds Eye Contact Uncomfortable

How can you tell if your eye contact is making a cat anxious or upset? Look for these subtle body language signs of discomfort:

  • Ears turned back or flat against the head
  • Dilated pupils
  • Sudden head jerking or shaking
  • Low growling or hissing
  • Twitching or flicking tail
  • Crouched posture
  • Slight retreat of the head
  • Sudden grooming
  • Breaking eye contact

If you notice these reactions, the cat is probably signaling its dislike of the eye contact. Ease up and look away.

When is Staring Okay?

Are there ever times when staring at a cat is appropriate? Here are some of the only instances when direct eye contact may be alright:

  • Brief eye contact while playing with the cat
  • Occasional direct looks during a training session
  • Short stare in order to get the cat’s attention
  • Slow blinks to say hello/goodbye or show affection

In general though, try to avoid prolonged, intense eye contact in most day-to-day situations.


Cats do not enjoy direct eye contact the way humans do. To a cat, a stare is seen as threatening or challenging, rather than friendly. It’s best to interact with cats using sideways glances or soft, slow eye contact. Take cues from your cat’s body language as well. If they seem uncomfortable with eye contact, respect their preferences and look away. Avoid staring contests, which most cats are guaranteed to lose. Understanding feline eye contact etiquette will help build a better bond with your cat.