- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
Cats are loving creatures. They advertise their affection through purring, rubbing against you, and bumping their head on you. They may even meow in greeting as a way of saying, ‘I’m happy to see you!’
And cats aren’t affectionate with just anyone. They reserve it for people they know well. If your cat rolls onto its back, that is a major sign of trust. It means they feel safe and trust you enough to be vulnerable around you.
But one behavior remains a mystery for many cat owners: the sight of a cat squinting. A squinting, relaxed cat might be a familiar sight, but why do they do it?
The main theory: it’s another sign of affection.
When company comes over, many cats retreat to safe spots. Even the most social cats can be reserved around strangers. However, when your cat feels safe around close friends and family, they’re more likely to show a wider range of body language. This includes the famous slow-blink of a contented cat and the half-closed eyes of a relaxed, squinting cat.
Although there is no hard science on the subject, the act of squinting itself limits your cat’s vision slightly. Like the slow-blink, this can indicate that they feel safe and comfortable enough to let down their guard. This squint is not just a coincidence, either—it can be a mode of communication unto itself. If you are close with your cat and squint at them, they will sometimes return the gesture.
Many cat owners associate squinting not just as a sign of trust, but as a sign of love and affection. After all, this body language typically seen in cats that are content and around the ones they love most.
Cats communicate a lot of information with their eyes through body language, but they are unique in so many other ways!
Cats and humans both have special color-sensing cells in their eyes called cones. Humans have about 10 times more cones, though, so we can see more color variations.
Ever wonder what makes a cat’s eyes reflective? A tapetum made up of reflective cells beneath their retinas is the cause, and it also helps them see better in low light. Their peripheral vision is stronger than ours, too, thanks to their eyes being set further apart on their head.
Aside from the usual upper and lower eyelids like ours, cats have a third eyelid behind their lower lid called the nictitating membrane. This membrane helps to clear dust away and keep the eye moist. So don’t get in a staring contest with a cat, ’cause, well, they’ll win.
But it’s not all roses for cats: they’re more near-sighted than humans by far. If you see something clearly at 100 feet away, a cat would need to be about 20 feet away to see it equally well.
There are a few medical conditions that can cause cats to squint. If your cat is squinting constantly, squinting only in one eye, or shows other symptoms, consider consulting your vet. Here are a few of the health conditions that could cause your cat to squint.
One condition that could cause your cat to squint is blepharitis. This is an inflammation of the eyelid caused by anatomical anomalies, reactions to allergens, bacterial infections, viral infections, parasites, and many other potential triggers. Some symptoms include intense itching of the eye, discharge, thickening of the eyelids, loss of hair, watery and painful eyes, and blurred vision.
Glaucoma is rare in cats but very serious when it does occur. It has a wide range of possible causes including trauma, tumors, an unusual shift of the lens, inflammatory disorders, infection, or anatomic anomalies that results in blocking drainage from the eye and a buildup of pressure. This is a dangerous condition that can result in vision or eye loss if not treated quickly and requires long-term treatment. Symptoms include squinting, red eyes, visibly enlarged eyes, weepy or cloudy eyes, and serious eye pain.
Uveitis occurs when the uvea at the front of the eye is inflamed, affecting the iris, pupil, and vision. Autoimmune diseases, tumors, trauma, metabolic disorders, and infections are all possible triggers. Besides squinting, eye pain, reddened eyes, teary eyes, discharge, a small or uneven pupil, swelling of the eyeball, cloudy eyes, or an uneven or unusual iris color are possible symptoms.
Conjunctivitis is a common inflammatory condition that can have a lot of causes ranging from a response to allergens, an eye infection, or one of several types of viral infections. Some symptoms include constant squinting, excessive blinking, reddened eyes, eye discharge, a buildup of fluid in the eye, or respiratory distress.
Corneal ulcers are another condition that can cause squinting. These are open sores on the clear surface of the eye caused by injuries, infections, insufficient tear production, or anatomical anomalies. The ulcers can appear cloudy, and symptoms include eye sensitivity, squinting, redness, and discharge.
Eye trauma can also cause constant squinting. This trauma can be a foreign object in the eye, scratches, punctures, or lacerations of the eye, or blunt trauma to the eye. Symptoms vary widely depending on the type of trauma and can include bleeding, swelling, reddened and painful eyes, etc. Treatment can range from eye drops to surgery depending on the severity.
Although there are a few medical conditions that can cause your cat to squint, most of the time your cat is probably telling you that they feel safe, content, and want to share a little love. Next time they squint at you, try squinting back to let them know that the feeling is mutual!