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Sometimes it seems like our cats don’t blink at all…and other times they seem to blink dozens of times a minute while they sleepily stare out the window.
So what’s going here and how often do cats actually blink?
Cats rarely blink in the same way that humans do where the upper and lower eyelids meet. Instead, cats have a nictating membrane, also called their third eyelid, that rapidly and regularly moves across the eye to clear debris. This allows cats to get the benefits of blinking without ever closing their eyes.
That means the question of how often cats blink isn’t so straightforward. At least if you think of blinking in human terms.
Let’s take a closer look at everything you could ever want to know about how cats blink and how often they do it.
Why Do Animals Blink?
Before we dive into the details of your cat’s eye, let’s clarify why any animal (including humans) blinks in the first place.
The answer is actually pretty simple and Dr. John Stern explains, “We have to blink to cleanse and moisten the eye. Each time the eyelids close, salty secretions from the tear glands are swept over the surface of the eye, flushing away small dust particles and lubricating the exposed portion of the eyeball.”
Even though Dr. Sterns is describing why humans blink, the need to remove dust and debris from the eye is a universal and essential function of the eye and this explanation applies to most species.
But as cats have already shown us, there’s more than one way to clean an eyeball!
Understanding Your Cat’s Eyes
While there are many similarities between a cat’s eye and our own, there are also some big differences. Cats have a different composition of photoreceptor cells which means they don’t see color in the same way we do and they’ve also got a much wider field of vision.
But when it comes to basic anatomy, the basic idea is pretty similar. Cats have tear ducts like us that help keep the eye moist and they also need to regularly clear the eye of dust or debris.
Once again, that’s where the real difference occurs and instead of closing the eyelids to blink, cats use their nictitating membrane which is also frequently referred to as their third eyelid. In most cats, the third eyelid is barely visible and you’re unlikely to catch your cat using it to blink.
However, when cats lay at a particular angle you can occasionally see the nictating member in the corner of the eye and if you’re not sure what you’re looking at it can actually be quite concerning. You can check out the video below to see what I mean.
Look for the white portion in the corner of the eye that’s closest to the nose:
In many cases, seeing your cat’s nictitating membrane can be a bad thing and the folks at Catster explain “Most often, however, if you can see your cat’s third eyelid, it indicates a problem — either something is wrong with the eye or third eyelid itself, or possibly another health issue might be at hand (often, a sick cat).”
That means if you suddenly start seeing your cat’s third eyelid all the time it’s a good idea to talk to your veterinarian.
So What Does This Third Eyelid Do?
Your cat’s third eyelid moistens and protects the eye from irritants. It does this by very quickly moving across the eye.
Think of it like a windshield wiper for your cat’s eye. Just like when you’re driving, you wouldn’t want to completely lose sight of the road, right?
Your cat’s wild ancestors wouldn’t want to risk completely losing sight of their surroundings either.
Whether they’re tracking prey or just trying to stay safe your cat’s eyes are critical for survival. The nictitating membrane lets your cat keep their eyes clean and debris free without having to actually close them. The same way your windshield wipers can keep your view clear while still removing snow and rain!
Not only is it practical to be able to clear the eye without losing vision but this adaptation makes even more sense when you consider the feline’s origin as a desert-dwelling creature. If a cat had to completely close their eye every time they got sand in their eye, they’d be in trouble.
Do Humans Have A Third Eyelid?
Yes, we do!
I know, it’s surprising but before you get too excited you should know that you can’t use it to blink like our feline friends. Instead, it’s considered a vestigial organ, like your appendix. That means it doesn’t actually fill any purpose anymore but is still a normal part of our body.
Okay, So How Often Does A Cat Blink…Their Third Eyelid?
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find any concrete data on just how often cats “blink” using their third eyelid. Because the third eyelid is so difficult to see in most cases, you’re going to have a hard time really seeing this special cat blink in action.
When it comes to blinking by completely closing their eyelids, you know the human definition of a blink, it’s rare that cats do it all. Since the nictating membrane does the job of clearing the eyes, blinking as we know it doesn’t serve much purpose.
In some ways, describing anything that cats do with their eyes as a blink is a bit is a misnomer. It’s rare for the upper and lower eyelid to completely meet as it does with humans and instead many experts refer to the cat blink as something closer to a cat squint.
So Why Do Cats Blink At All?
If cats don’t need to blink (or squint), thanks to their nictating membrane, why do ever catch them doing it at all?
All cats and people have something called a menace response. While it might sound like an agenda item at a neighborhood watch meeting, it’s really just the eye’s natural reflex to close when something is close to it.
The menace response is what causes you to immediately close your eyes if a ball is coming towards your face and it’s the same response that causes you to close your eyes when you hear a loud noise.
That means you may see your cat blink, or at least squint, whenever something may be heading towards their face.
Also like humans, cats will blink more when conditions are windy or especially dirty. This natural reflex helps keep the eye clean and was essential in the desert where your housecat’s wild ancestors first met humans.
Cats also use blinking to communicate love, trust, and affection as well! Soft blinking eyes are a cat’s way of saying that they’re comfortable and trusting of whoever they’re around.
What Does It Mean When A Cat Blinks At You?
When your cat blinks slowly and softly at you it means they like you!
Let’s take a moment to think about what a blink would mean in the wild.
Closing your eyes would always be a risky decision or at least something your cat would only do when she feels safe. On the other hand, staring intently at something with unblinking eyes would indicate that your cat either sees something as prey or a threat- or at least something worthy of intense interest.
So when your cat looks into your eyes and slowly blinks, that’s her way of saying, “Hey, I feel safe around you and I think you’re pretty great.”
Do Cats Blink To Say I Love You?
I don’t want to put words in your cat’s mouth, but yes a slow, soft blink means your cat loves you!
Or at least that they feel safe and secure with you. Remember that your cat would never close her eyes to predators or potential prey!
How To Communicate With Your Cat Using Blinks
Slowing blinking with a cat is one of my favorite fun feline activities and a great way to form a connection with your cat.
It’s also very simple to do and the next time your cat is relaxed and comfortable with soft eyes, make quick eye contact, and then slowly blink several times. Hold your eyes closed just for a moment to make sure your blinks are extra slow.
There’s a good chance your cat will match your slow blinks with some of their own.
But please remember that steady eye contact with cats without blinking could be a sign of aggression or attempted intimidation. So make sure you don’t accidentally send the wrong signals to your cat by staring too long!
If you’re still a little unsure on what this might look like, check out this great video from Jackson Galaxy on how to master the slow blink:
Once you get good at mastering the soft blink it can be a great way to say hello to new kitties who are already somewhat comfortable with you and it’s a technique I used in my decade long experience in the animal welfare industry.
Cats will also use this soft blink to show their love and trust towards their feline friends. So if you’ve ever wondered whether your kitties are comfortable with each other just like for the slow blink cat!
Like many cat questions, the answer to how often your cat blinks isn’t so simple!
Because cats have a third eyelid, that humans just can’t relate to, we honestly need more words than a just “blink” to describe how their eyes work!
Of course, cats still blink but they just do it in their own way!
What do you think? Have you ever been able to see your cat’s third eyelid in action?