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Why Do Cats Wink?

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Our feline friends are known to act silly or strange every once in a while. They might even do things that seem downright human.

A cat that blinks is likely a common sight in your household, but have you ever seen a cat wink? If you have, you’re not alone. 

Although it may not be typical, some cats do actually wink from time to time. It can be easy to think that your cat is winking for the same reasons that we all wink, but we can assure you that your cat is not hiding some well-kept secret or trying to be coy.

So, why do cats wink? 

While a cat could wink because they have an injury, irritation, or piece of debris in their eye, it’s more likely that you’re just catching your cat in a weird moment or your feline friend is trying to express affection or happiness in the same way that cats do when they blink. 

We’ll talk about the differences between winking and blinking and then dive into the potential reasons that your cat might be winking. 

Let’s get started!

Winking Vs. Blinking: What’s the difference?

The difference between winking and blinking is pretty straightforward. Winking is when you close one eye and reopen it. Blinking is when you close and reopen both eyes at the same time.

Simple enough, right? 

It should be, but there are some other things to keep in mind.

For example, a wink is usually a bit slower than a blink and involves pausing with the eye closed for a moment before opening it back up.

In people, a blink is very quick. It’s a semi-automatic eye movement that has a few purposes.

According to Cleveland Clinic, blinking is a natural reflex in humans. It helps keep our eyes lubricated and healthy. When necessary, we can also blink on command. Furthermore, blinking protects our eyes from bright lights and irritants like dirt and dust.

For cats, blinking doesn’t work quite the same way.

When a person blinks, their eyelids spread out tears from their tear ducts to keep their eyes moist. Cats don’t use their top and bottom eyelids to do this like people, and instead have a third eyelid called a nictitating membrane that spreads the tears across their eyes.

The third eyelid moves so quickly that people rarely ever see it! So if you see your cat blink with their top and bottom eyelids, they may have something in their eye but more often than not they’re using their blink to communicate with you.  

Reason 1: Just Like Blinking, It’s About Communication

Cats are known to blink slowly while looking at their favorite people. They’d never close their eyes if they thought a person or another animal was a threat, so the slow blink is a way for them to say that they trust you and it’s also one of my favorite things to do with cats

Your cat may also blink to communicate their affection, and returning the favor may allow you to bond with them and let them know that you love them

You may be wondering if cats wink for the same reason that they blink, and the answer is: probably!

A winking cat is still closing an eye in your presence. It still shows trust by being vulnerable and limiting their ability to see their surroundings. 

While blinking might be more common than winking, your cat might be unique or they may just be very slowly and asynchronously blinking (aka a wink). 

Although there’s always a chance that an eye condition is preventing your cat from blinking normally, if they wink at you often, it could just be their preferred way to communicate.

For a good example of what this loving slow wink looks like check out this handsome orange feline and notice how one eye is completely closed and the other is about halfway open. That combination is a good indication that your cat’s wink is a sign of love and probably not a result of something in their eye:

Reason 2: Your Cat Is Tired and Sleepy

If you’ve ever been really tired then you know just how good it feels to close your eyes, even for a few seconds.

Sometimes, as you fight to keep your eyes open, you may partially close one eye while the other opens. This can go on until you do 100 jumping jacks to wake up or you just fall asleep (speaking from personal experience here).

Something similar can occur with our feline friends and when you consider that cats spending an amazing 70% of their life asleep it should be no surprise that they’re always a little sleepy!

Again, this might not look exactly like the wink that humans do but if the process of sleepily blinking is slow enough it can certainly look like a wink.

If this sounds like what your cat is doing, you should once again be honored as your feline friend is showing trust as they lazily and sleepily wink in your direction.

Reason 3: They Have Something Stuck In Their Eye

So far we’ve looked at some pretty amazing explanations for why cats wink but it’s not always about affection.

Sometimes cats just have something stuck in their eye.

Dust or debris can scratch or get stuck in the eye and damage the cornea. The cornea is an outer layer that forms over the eye and when debris gets stuck in the eye or damages the cornea, the affected eye may become red or swollen. The nictitating membrane might even become visible or cover part of the eye. 

While it’s normal for a cat to frequently rub an eye with debris in it, your cat might also squint or wink in the same way a person does when something is caught in their eye. This could even happen if their fur or a stray whisker pokes them in the eye for a moment or two. 

If you’ve ever poked yourself in the eye, you know that the discomfort can last a little way. The same goes for cats!

A clear sign that your cat is dealing with debris in the eye is if the wink is fast, rapid, and combined with the occasional paw at the eye.

In most cases, cats will be able to remove whatever is irritating their eye on their own and those winks usually do a good job. But if you the winking goes on for more than a few minutes or you see some kind of change in the eye it’s a good idea to consult your veterinarian.

Reason 4: It Could Be Allergies

Just like people, cats can have allergies. Common allergens include things like pollen, mold, mildew, or scented beauty products, and they can irritate your cat’s eyes. This might cause them to water or even wink, especially if one eye is affected more than the other. 

If your cat’s winks are accompanied by watery eyes, you should consult your veterinarian who can suggest treatment. Sometimes, the easiest solution is to remove the allergen from your home or reduce it so that it isn’t a problem for your cat. If you do notice the winking stop when you remove suspected allergens, then it’s likely that allergies were the issue all along.

When it comes to allergies, you may see cats pawing at the winking eye as well along with a some extra moisture in the eye.  

Reason 5: It’s Actually An Eye Condition

If your cat suddenly starts winking at you and it’s not a part of their normal behavior, there is a chance that something could be wrong with their eye. This is especially true if your cat is holding their eye closed for longer periods of time (like several seconds, minutes, or hours).

We’ll cover the most likely eye conditions that could cause your cat to wink, but you should definitely pay a visit to the vet if you think something is wrong or if you’re not sure. Keep in mind, this isn’t a comprehensive list and if your cat’s winking is ever accompanied by discharge, redness, or discomfort you’ll want to talk to your veterinarian.  

Conjunctivitis (Eye Infection)

Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, a membrane that covers the eye and eyelids, including the nictitating membrane.  Conjunctivitis and other infections of the eye can be caused by any of the above along with a variety of infectious diseases like calicivirus and feline herpes

These conditions are less common in indoor-only cats but once a feline has contracted the feline herpes virus they’ll have it for life. This herpes virus can become active and cause conjunctivitis during times of stress or a weakened immune system.

So if your cat seems to be winking more after a big move, a new baby, or any other big life change it could be related to conjunctivitis as a result of feline herpes.

With conjunctivitis, eyes will usually be watery and cats may squint the eye. If only one eye is affected, you might have a winker on your hands. 

A winking cat may be cute, but if they’re only winking because their eye is bothering them, they need to be checked by a professional right away. 

Dry Nictitating Membrane in One Eye

Another cause of winking could be dry eyes. While quite uncommon, cats can develop a condition known as keratoconjunctivitis sicca, also called dry eye syndrome. Cats with this condition suffer from a lack of aqueous fluid, or tears, on the eye and eyelids.

This can cause your cat to squint with the affected eye in a way that looks a lot like winking. It might also cause your cat’s third eyelid to become visible, so that’s something to look out for. 

As with any medical condition, it’s a good idea to consult your veterinarian for a treatment plan. 

Could It Be A Lazy Eye? 

While infection and irritation are possibilities, a cat may wink because they have a lazy or droopy eye. Some cats can develop a condition called strabismus in which one or both eyes appear crossed. This usually involves reduced muscle function around the eye. 

What you assume to be a wink could really just be a loss of eye strength caused by a buildup of scar tissue from a previous eye injury. In the case of some breeds, like Siamese cats, congenital strabismus is something a cat can be born with. 

Sometimes, strabismus can be caused by secondary conditions like nerve damage, strokes, cancers, and inner ear disease, but those usually come along with other signs of sickness and not just a weak or winking eye. If your cat is just winking, your probably don’t need to worry that it’s something serious, but you should always contact your vet if you’re concerned or unsure. 

When Should You Worry?

If your cat really is just winking and their eye doesn’t appear to be irritated, then there’s probably nothing to worry about. 

But if your cat is winking rapidly or the winking is combined with redness, pawing, or discharge from the eye it’s a good idea to consult your veterinarian. Even if you’re unsure, a vet can rule out any of the eye conditions we mentioned and advise you on what to look out for. 

Maybe It’s Just A Weird Quirk

If we can be sure of anything, it’s that each and every cat has their own unique interests and behaviors. If your cat has always been a winker and doesn’t show any signs of an eye injury or disease, they might just wink because they feel comfortable doing it. 

You can try to test out the communication theory by winking at them yourself. Wait until they make eye contact, then give them a wink.

What happens next?

If they respond by coming closer, or if they wink back, that may mean that they’re winking to talk to you after all. Try petting your cat or showing them affection after they wink at you to reward them for communicating. You may see them do it more often, and you can be happy knowing you’ve found a cute new way to bond together.

With enough winking, blinking and pets you might have a chance of becoming your cat’s favorite person.

Closing Thoughts

While some cats might wink to communicate in the same way that other cats blink, it never hurts to check in with a vet to be sure that there isn’t something going on with your cat’s eye health. Your veterinarian may end up confirming that your cat is just trying to say that they trust you, which is really the best case scenario. 

Why do you think your cat winks? Have you tried winking back?

Let us know how your cat reacts!